Scientists drop a meteor crashing into Jupiter

This color enhanced image shows NASA’s Juno view of Jupiter in late 2020.

NASA / JPL-Caltech / SwRI / MSSS; image processing by Tanya Oleksuik

Researchers using NASA’s Juno spacecraft to look at Jupiter ‘s auroras saying they got lucky last spring and caught a very clear meteoroid explosion in the process.

Such effects are not uncommon for Jupiter, as it is the largest planet in the solar system with powerful heavy gravity.

“However, they are so short-lived that it is relatively unusual to see them,” Rohini Giles of the Southwest Research Institute said in a statement. “You have to be lucky to point a telescope at Jupiter at the right time.”

Giles is the lead author of a paper published this month in Geophysical Research Letters.

Amateur astronauts have used Earth-based telescopes to see six impacts on the vast planet in the past decade, including its a very dramatic one in 2019. But Giles and colleagues had a distinct advantage in using Juno hanging out with Jupiter himself.

“This bright flash stood out in the data, because it had very different celestial properties than the UV emissions from Jupiter auroras,” Giles explained.


SwRI scientists studied the area designed with the Juno UVS instrument on April 10, 2020, and concluded that a giant meteoroid had exploded in a bright ball of fire in Jupiter’s high atmosphere. The UVS swath includes a piece of Jupiter’s northern auroral egg, appearing just in green, representing hydrogen emissions. In contrast, the bright spot (see expansion) appears mostly yellow, indicating large scattering at longer waves.


Looking at the brightness and other data from the flash, the team estimates that it came from a space rock with a mass of between 550 and 3,300 pounds (249 to 1,497 kilograms) affecting the jovian atmosphere at altitude about 140 miles (225 kilometers) above the top of Jupiter clouds.

Issues going into Jupiter can be very big. The largest smackdown ever seen on the planet was the impact of Comet Shoemaker Levy 9 in 1994, which was widely studied.

“Effects from asteroids and comets can have a profound effect on the planet’s stratospheric chemistry – 15 years after the impact, the comet Shoemaker Levy 9 was still responsible for 95 percent of the stratospheric water on Jupiter,” Giles said. Monitoring impacts and estimating overall impact levels is therefore an important element in understanding the planet ‘s balance. ”

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