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Mystery: "Something Invaded Our Solar System" And Collided With Jupiter

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Brandi Dye
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« on: August 03, 2009, 11:09:44 am »

Mystery: "Something Invaded Our Solar System" And Collided With Jupiter

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Brandi Dye
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« Reply #1 on: August 03, 2009, 11:11:19 am »

Astronomers Look for Clues in the Wake of the Jupiter Collision
Something invaded our solar system and whacked Jupiter, but professional astronomers were looking the other way at the time. Now, as the shock wave slowly subsides, astronomers are working around the clock to find out exactly what hit Jupiter–and why they didn't see it coming.

By Andrew Moseman
Published on: July 31, 2009



The biggest astronomy sighting of the year happened last week, and the world's professional astronomers missed it. Anthony Wesley, an amateur astronomer from Australia, spotted a tiny dark patch on Jupiter from his backyard telescope. Something had crashed into the solar system's largest planet, but no one saw exactly what it was. By the time Wesley called the pros, only the scar was left behind, evidence that could change or fade into oblivion at any time. Now scientists are racing to find clues of what happened and solve the mystery before it's too late.

Leigh Fletcher of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) was one of the first on the case. Through a bit of serendipity, his team had scheduled time at the Infrared Telescope Facility in Hawaii to look at Jupiter. When they heard of Wesley's discovery, they set aside their other projects and turned their sights to this fleeting "target of opportunity." The infrared images showed that the planetary blemish continues to shine brightly with highly reflective particles that have been pushed into the upper atmosphere, proving that Jupiter's new bruise truly is the aftermath of a collision. The next step–finding out what exactly caused the event–requires researchers across the globe to get time on the world's most powerful telescopes to look at Jupiter before the impact site disappears. There are three main suspects: a comet, a meteor or an asteroid. If astronomers can figure out what the impactor was and where it came from, they might have a better idea how often Jupiter gets these kinds of bruises. In addition, the more scientists know about the rogue objects roaming the solar system, the better they can track those that might make a pass dangerously close to Earth.

Fortunately they have a model to work from. Astronomers aren't sure how often these collisions happen on Jupiter, but 15 years ago they had a front-row seat for one. The Shoemaker-Levy 9 comet was spotted well before its 1994 collision with Jupiter, so astronomers were able to record the comet's size and direction before it broke up and crashed into the gas giant. Franck Marchis, an astronomer at the University of California-Berkeley who collaborated on some of the first sightings of the new impact, says that thanks to the observations scientists made back in 1994, they know more about what to expect from an impact on Jupiter. That could guide today's astronomers as they try to figure out whether or not the new impactor was an icy body, what direction it came from and how big it was, Marchis says.

Scientists used what they learned from Shoemaker-Levy 9 to reconstruct this impact and along the way they found out why they never saw it coming. Imke de Pater of UC-Berkeley spent three straight days working odd hours and fighting cloudy weather at the Keck Observatory in Hawaii, imaging Jupiter with different wavelengths of light to reveal different depths of the atmosphere. Astronomers collaborating at Keck, the Very Large Telescope in Chile, and elsewhere have combined studies of the layers of Jupiter's atmosphere and reconstructed a three-dimensional picture of the impact site. When they compared that to the 1994 impact sites, the researchers found that the new collision left only one mark, so the impactor didn't break up before entry like Shoemaker-Levy 9. And astronomers concluded that this impactor's size was on the order of a football field. With the object illuminated only by the scant light available so far from the sun, the chances of spotting it from Earth were remote.
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« Reply #2 on: August 03, 2009, 11:11:59 am »

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« Reply #3 on: August 03, 2009, 11:12:52 am »

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« Reply #4 on: August 03, 2009, 11:13:13 am »

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« Reply #5 on: August 03, 2009, 11:13:29 am »

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« Reply #6 on: August 03, 2009, 11:13:45 am »

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« Reply #7 on: August 03, 2009, 11:14:05 am »

Still, this small object packed a punch–it created a debris field of scattered gases on Jupiter the size of the Pacific Ocean. And that gas cloud is a clue that suggests the direction of the impactor. On JPL's official blog, Fletcher says that because the infrared images show that the massive field scattered toward its upper left (as seen from Earth), the impactor probably came from that direction and struck the planet sometime in the 24 hours before Wesley first spotted the scar. Once astronomers refine this information, it might even be possible to go back to old pictures of the sky, look at where the impactor should be coming from and find it, says planetary scientist Mark Gurwell of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

So far, researchers have narrowed down the direction and size of the impactor, but one big question remains: Just what kind of object was it? To answer this question, the researchers again will turn to Shoemaker-Levy 9, says Glenn Orton, a senior research scientist at JPL. The 1994 impacts left traces of hydrogen cyanide, carbon monoxide and other chemicals in Jupiter's atmosphere. Now Orton is using spectroscopic analysis, which determines the composition of Jupiter's atmosphere by the light it gives off, to see if the 2009 impactor left a similar signature, which would indicate it was probably a comet as well. Orton says the best explanation is a comet or other icy body–nearly all the objects roaming that area of the solar system are icy–and finding oxygen traces would just about cinch the case. But making these observations through our own oxygen-rich atmosphere is a difficult task, he says, so the answer may take some time.

While questions remain, astronomers are carrying on their sleepless race to record all the information they can from Jupiter's new scar before it's too late. "We have no idea how long it will last," de Pater says. Orton says he's run himself and his grad students ragged as he guided observations in Chile by phone from his California office until 1 am and then started again at 7 am, when Jupiter's scar became visible to the telescopes in Hawaii. "I'm exhausted," he says. Others are joining the party too. Late last week, the Hubble Space Telescope's brand-new camera, which space shuttle astronauts installed in May, snapped the sharpest visible-light photo yet taken of the impact site. It'll take weeks and months to unravel all the data, Gurwell says, but for now astronomers' priority is to gather all the evidence they possibly can. "We'll shoot first and ask questions later," he says.
http://www.popularmechanics.com/science/air_space/4326395.html

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