Jupiter Dusts Self Off, Gets Back to Work

Jul 23, 2009 1:49pm

Whatever hit Jupiter last weekend, it has a lot of Jovians hopping mad, and a lot of astronomers on Earth trying to figure out what happened. There are new images of the Earth-size scar where something — perhaps a small comet or meteoroid — apparently plowed into the clouds near Jupiter's south pole on Sunday.  Take a look at this infrared picture, shot by the Gemini North telescope near the summit of Mauna Kea in Hawaii: The impact point is the orange feature near the bottom center of Jupiter's disc in this image.  The picture was created by combining two different infrared images. "At these wavelengths we receive thermal radiation (heat) from the planet's upper atmosphere," Imke de Pater of the University of California at Berkeley, said in a statement. "The impact site is clearly much warmer than its surroundings, as shown by our image." Credit where credit is due: Imke de Pater (UC Berkeley), Heidi B. Hammel (Space Science Institute), Travis Rector (University of Alaska Anchorage), Gemini Observatory/AURA. It is somewhat more vivid than the black-and-white infrared image that NASA sent out on Tuesday, though it's clear over time that the heat from the friction of the interloper plunging through Jupiter's atmosphere is dissipating. Meanwhile, here's the picture that started it all, shot on Sunday by Anthony Wesley, an amateur astronomer in Australia who realized there was something new on Jupiter, and alerted the rest of the world.  This shot uses visible light.  The south pole of Jupiter is at the top, and the impact spot — much less prominent when we're not looking at an infrared heat signature — is the tiny dark dot just below the pole. Wesley's description — including mention of what happened to his blog when his post was linked by Slashdot.org — makes good reading, and it's HERE. Should we Earthlings be worried?  We we reported on Tuesday (click HERE) Jupiter acts as a great celestial (pun alert) vacuum cleaner, drawing a lot of the solar system's junk its way.  The object that hit it Sunday, whatever it was, went undetected from Earth — but keep in mind that nobody down here is regularly looking out for Jupiter's welfare, the way astronomers are cataloging Near Earth Objects (look HERE) that might someday hit us.

If the object had been wandering around our part of the inner solar system (nearly half a billion miles from Jupiter), space scientists say we probably would have noticed it.  Whether, with current technology, we would have been able to do anything about it, is another matter.
================== UPDATE, Friday, 4:20 p.m. EDT: One more image — this one from the Hubble Space Telescope, imaged in visible light on Thursday and just released.  Click on the picture to get a (much) enlarged version.   One extra note about this image: it's the first since the shuttle Atlantis made its rendezvous with the Hubble in May to upgrade the telescope.  There appear to be a couple of other hiccups, but with the Wide Field Camera used for this picture, so far, so good.

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