Back in mid-March, Austrian amateur astronomer Gerrit Kernbauer captured on film the image of a flash about halfway between Jupiter’s equator and its northern pole. That brief flash of light marked a rare occurrence: the collision of Jupiter with an asteroid or comet, and the fortuitous timing of an astronomer making coincidental observations. But Kernbauer wasn’t the only amateur astronomer to capture the explosion of the mystery object interacting with Jupiter’s gravity…
Space Daily reported April 1 that on March 17, Gerritt Kernbauer had set up his telescope to capture Jupiter in all its glory, but he never noticed that something extraordinary had happened until he went back through the footage. And even then, he wasn’t certain the object wasn’t some camera malfunction or glitch considering he captured the image on a camera attached to a Skywatcher Newton 20-centimeter telescope. He then posted his video to YouTube.
Kernbauer wrote the following on his March 26 YouTube posting.
“On 17.03.2016 i was observing and filming Jupiter with my Skywatcher Newton 200/1000 Telescope. The seeing was not the best, so i hesitated to process the Videos. Nevertheless 10 days later i looked through the Videos and i found this strange light spot that appeared for less than one second on the edge of the planetary disc. Thinking back to Shoemaker-Levy 9, my only explanation for this is an asteroid or comet that enters Jupiters high atmosphere and burned up/explode very fast.”
Shoemaker-Levy 9 was a comet that disintegrated when it got a little too close to Jupiter’s gravitational well in mid-July 1994. Breaking up into smaller pieces, that object impacted the Solar System’s largest planet in a series of fragmentary bombardments, 21 in all, over a six-day period.
To verify whether or not the video footage of the asteroid — or comet — was real and not due to some equipment error, Kernbauer would find that another amateur astronomer, just half a continent away in Ireland, had also observed Jupiter on March 17, and had obtained footage using a 28-centimeter telescope. As CNN noted, John McKeon in Dublin had also filmed an object crashing into Jupiter.
Kernbauer speculated that the object, whether an asteroid or a comet, must have broken up and/or exploded quickly in Jupiter’s upper atmosphere. Barring that it might have collided with another bit of space rock, the Austrian could very well be correct, according to Phil Plait at the Slate blog, “Bad Astronomy,” who says that the explosive flash caught on video could easily have been caused by an object being destroyed by Jupiter’s intense gravity.
As Plait notes, the destructive forces rendered or the energy output of a collision is dependent on both mass and velocity.
“The energy released by an object slamming into another depends linearly on the mass (double the mass, double the energy), but on the square of the velocity: double the velocity, quadruple the energy… On average (and ignoring orbital velocity), an object will hit Jupiter with roughly five times the velocity it hits Earth, so the impact energy is 25 times as high.”
Therefore, Plait believes the brief explosive flare on Jupiter signified a rather small incoming object. Comparing the Jupiter object with the Chelyabinsk meteor — a space rock estimated at about 19 feet across (or as much as 20 meters/65.6 feet, according to other estimates) — that disintegrated in the Russian skies in February 2013, and detonated with a force of half a million tons of TNT. Plait pointed out that something just as large would hit Jupiter 25 times faster, making the resultant blast that much more brighter and making it relatively easy for Earth astronomers to spot.
And as rare as spotting an object crashing into Jupiter is, not to mention being observed by amateur astronomers, it has been done before. As National Geographic recounted, Dan Peterson of Racine, Wisconsin and George Hall of Dallas, Texas observed a comet or meteor/asteroid impacting Jupiter in September 2012. That particular explosion differed from the one observed by Kernbauer and McKeon only in that it occurred on the opposite side of the planet.
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