A fireball crashed into Jupiter and astronomers recorded it on video | ET REALITY


Ko Arimatsu, an astronomer at Kyoto University in Japan, received an intriguing email a couple of weeks ago: An amateur astronomer in his country had detected a bright flash in Jupiter’s atmosphere.

Dr. Arimatsu, who runs a observation program To study the outer solar system using home astronomy equipment, put out a call for more information. Six more reports of the August 28 flare, which Dr. Arimatsu says is one of the brightest ever recorded on the giant gas planet, came from Japanese skywatchers.

Flashes like these are caused by asteroids or comets from the edges of our solar system impacting Jupiter’s atmosphere. “Direct observation of these bodies is virtually impossible, even with advanced telescopes,” Dr. Arimatsu wrote in an email. But Jupiter’s gravity attracts these objects, which eventually crash into the planet, “making it a unique and invaluable tool to study them directly,” he said.

Characterizing these flares is a crucial way to understand the history of our solar system. They offer “a glimpse into the violent processes that occurred in the early days of our solar system,” said Leigh Fletcher, a planetary scientist at the University of Leicester in England. It’s like “watching planetary evolution in action,” she added.

Today, powerful impacts against Jupiter are much rarer, but they do occur. In 1994, a comet It hit Jupiter so hard. which left a visible debris field. Astronomers witnessed another massive impact in 2009.

Most collisions with Jupiter, the fifth planet in the solar system, are opportunistically witnessed by amateur astronomers. (Eight of the nine flashes observed at Jupiter since 2010 were reported by amateurs, according to Dr. Arimatsu.) They usually use a technique called lucky imageswhich records a video of a part of the sky at a high frame rate.

Those charts contain “a treasure trove of data,” Dr. Fletcher said, from which professional astronomers can deduce information about Jupiter’s atmosphere, meteorology and storms.

According to Dr. Arimatsu’s initial analyses, the flash reported in August had an impact comparable to the Tunguska explosion in Siberia in 1908, which experts believe was an asteroid that destroyed 800 square miles of forest. This is the second Jupiter event observed in the last decade with such energy, said Dr. Arimatsu, who reported the last one in 2021with an estimated energy equivalent to two megatons of TNT.

Still, the latest impact was not strong enough to leave a visible debris field, Dr. Fletcher said. Scientists study these traces to learn how Jupiter’s chemistry and temperature respond. Similar collisions could once have been important in generating the composition of the planets seen in our own solar system, he added, and perhaps others as well.

Astronomers focus on Jupiter because it is large, making it easy to see and more likely to be hit by cosmic debris. But some scientists believe that Saturn’s rings were once formed by such explosions, and tentative evidence It indicates that Uranus and Neptune have also been hit.

“If I were a betting man, I’d say all of our giant planets are being bombarded by asteroids and comets,” Dr. Fletcher said.

Stargazers are waiting for the next big flash, one that will create enough debris to be seen from Earth. When that happens, astronomers around the world will turn their telescopes toward Jupiter to study the consequences, and the James Webb and Hubble space telescopes will likely join in as well.

But because these winks in space are captured by chance, it’s the fans who are really lending weight to this line of research. “You can’t have hours and hours, night after night, on big professional telescopes,” Dr. Fletcher said. “You need dedicated astronomers around the world to do that.”

Dr. Arimatsu also emphasizes the importance of small-scale astronomical initiatives in a field overrun by massive projects. “It’s a vital part of the scientific community that often goes unnoticed,” he said.

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