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Impact on Jupiter surprises skywatchers

Jupiter with moon and shadow on one side and flash of light on the other.
Harald Paleske in Langendorf, Germany, captured this image of a bright flash of light as something impacted Jupiter on September 13, 2021. Io and its shadow are on the left side of Jupiter, while the flash is to the right of center. Image via Spaceweather.com.

Photographers capture an impact on Jupiter

Observers around the globe were surprised on September 13, 2021, when they witnessed an apparent impact on the giant planet Jupiter. A bright flash of light distracted them from their observing target: an ongoing transit of the shadow of the jovian moon Io across the face of Jupiter. A couple of lucky astrophotographers managed to snap images of the flash.

The image at top comes from Germany. Harald Paleske told SpaceWeather.com he was watching the dark shadow of Io cross onto Jupiter’s surface when the burst of light startled him. He said:

A bright flash of light surprised me. It could only be an impact.

Paleske had been taking a video of the transit of Io’s shadow when the event occurred. He looked over his video frames, searching for a satellite or plane that might have shown up as the bright patch. But he found no evidence that the event happened close to Earth or that’s he’d witnessed an earthly evente with Jupiter as mere backdrop. He timed the event as happening at 22:39:27 UTC on September 13 and lasting for two seconds.

Another astronomer, José Luis Pereira of Brazil, also captured the flash from the impact. ESA Operations tweeted his photo via Flickr.

A French astrophotographer, J.P. Arnould, also captured the surprising event.

What hit Jupiter?

It’s too soon to know, but a comet or asteroid would be the most likely culprits. As Spaceweather.com said:

An asteroid in the 100-meter size range (about 300 feet) would do the trick.

Skywatchers with telescopes from all parts of Earth are poised to view Jupiter following the impact. They’re hoping to spot a dark mark or temporary scar resulting from the impact. That’s what happened during the best-known impacts on Jupiter, which happened in July of 1994. Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 blazed a path directly toward Jupiter. Professional observatories were ready to catch the resulting collision. Shoemaker-Levy 9 left an entire trail of debris across the gas giant planet, as Jupiter’s intense tidal forces tore it to pieces.

A line of brown dots along southern hemisphere of Jupiter.
Brown spots mark the places where fragments of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 tore through Jupiter’s atmosphere in July 1994. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Bottom line: An impact on Jupiter on September 13, 2021 has stargazers looking skyward to see if they can spot any lingering evidence of the event.

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