+ Impact on Jupiter: What Happened Last Sunday?

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According to Dennis Overbye’s article in the NY Times, astronomers are scrambling to get big telescopes turned to Jupiter. 

They want to observe the remains of what looks like the biggest smashup in the solar system since fragments of the Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 crashed into the planet in July 1994.

It was probably a small comet.   But astronomers admit they might never know.

“It’s like throwing a stone on the pond,” explains Leigh Fletcher  of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.  “You see the splash, but lose the stone.  It’s the splash we can study.”

Just after midnight Australian time on Sunday July 19th, Jupiter came into view in the eyepiece of Anthony Wesley, an amateur astronomer in Murrumbateman.  Wesley had thought about quitting for the night to watch sports on TV, according to his Web site.  But he went back for another look and found this spot.

He emailed other astronomers, who had scheduled observing time at NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility on top of Hawaii’sMauna Kea.

Jupiter’s “scar” showed up as a bright spot in infrared light.

According to Franck Marchis, an astronomer at the SETI Institute and UC Berkeley, who has blogged about the event, the images suggest that whatever hit Jupiter might have been pulled apart by tidal forces from the planet’s huge gravity before it hit.

In an email message to Overbye, he said humans should be thankful for Jupiter.

The solar system would have been a very dangerous place if we did not have Jupiter.  We should thank our giant planet for suffering for us.  Its strong gravitational field is acting like a shield protecting us from comets coming from the outer part of the solar system.”

sole source: Dennis Overbye’s article in the NY Times on 7/22/09.  www.nytimes.com.

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