Jupiter Was Slammed By Something So Big, Astronomers Saw It From Earth

jupiter as seen from a cassini flyby
Wikimedia Commons (GPL Cropped, resized.)

The planet Jupiter was hit by something on Wednesday night, and the flash was so bright that an amateur astronomer caught it with his backyard telescope, CNET reports.

On Wednesday night, August 7, Ethan Chappel was watching the skies when he had his telescope pointed in the right place at the right time. Specifically, it was pointed at Jupiter, the fifth planet from the sun, and the largest planet in the solar system. As he was watching, he captured something amazing: a small flash of light, almost certainly caused by the impact of something crashing into the gas giant.

So what struck Jupiter? Odds are it was either a comet or an asteroid. A professional astronomer, Dr. Heidi B. Hammel, is learning toward the asteroid hypothesis. Specifically, she suggested that it was a bolide, a large meteor that explodes in the atmosphere. In a tweet, she confirmed that what Chappel witnessed was something striking the planet, and praised the backyard astronomer for his luck.

“Congrats to Ethan Chappel (@ChappelAstro) on this discovery,” she wrote.

Hammel also compared Chappel’s discovery to another Jupiter event: that of Comet Shumaker-Levy 9, which struck the planet 25 years ago. Hammel noted that the bolide that Chappel caught is unlikely to leave debris, the way the comet did.

Back in 1994, in one of the biggest astronomical events of the century, the comet, co-discovered by astronomers Carolyn and Eugene M. Shoemaker and David Levy in 1993, struck the surface of the planet. It had been known for months before the impact that it was going to happen, and telescopes around the world were trained on the planet.

The event did not disappoint. As the comet had broken up into several pieces long before the impact, multiple bright flashes lit up the viewfinders of telescopes the world over. What’s more, the shattered comet left “scars” of a sort on the planet — which is to say, dark spots left by the comet’s debris.

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a comet struck jupiter in 1994
Dark marks left on the surface of Jupiter from the impact of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 Hubble Space Telescope Comet Team and NASA / Wikimedia Commons (GPL)

SkyAndTelescope writer Bob King posits that the impact of the more recent event on Jupiter is likely about the size of the planet Earth. That’s not to say that the object that struck Jupiter is Earth-sized, just that the size of the flash is about the size of the Earth. For reference, the Earth is tiny when compared to Jupiter.

If the event that Chappel captured is confirmed to have been an asteroid strike on Jupiter, it would be the seventh recorded event since Shoemaker-Levy 9 struck the gas giant.