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Timing is everything…

plan

As the great man said… “I love it when a plan comes together…!”

As you’ve probably heard, earlier this month Something hit Jupiter. We don’t know what… yet… but it was probably either an asteroid or a comet. Not a huge one, nothing on a scale with the “Dinosaur Killer” that wiped out T Rex and all his mates 65 million years ago (note: other theories are available); we’re talking something “as wide as several football fields” according to NASA. But still, that’s a decent-sized chunk of rock and/or ice, and it was big enough, and massive enough, to leave an Earth-sized dark scar in Jupiter’s cloudtops when it slammed into the huge planet on July 19th, which was spotted, and photographed, by the respected and accomplished Australian ‘amateur’ (amateur?! Have you seen his equipment? And the amazing images he takes?!?) planetary observer Anthony Wesley. When he trained his ‘scope on Jupiter, Anthony noticed that the gas giant planet’s south pole was sporting a wasn’t-there-before dark feature, and he took this now famous image…

j20090719_155537utc

Within a matter of hours that image was flashing around the world, spreading like a virus across Twitter, Facebook and countless astronomy bulletin boards and forums. Soon The Press hasd picked up on it too, and began breathless reporting of the story. I understand one reporter managed to turn “the object left an Earth-sized scar on Jupiter’s clouds” into “an Earth-sized object has struck Jupiter!” Aww, bless.

Anyway, for the next few days everyone who owned a telescope scrabbled to see and photograph the mysterious new feature. While most seemed happy to accept that it was an impact scar, some cautioned against making such a hasty assumption, suggesting it might just be a strange – but perfectly natural – cloud of some sort. But when images taken by professional telescopes, at different wavelengths, started to come in, they had to accept that yes, it was an impact scar. Something Had Hit Jupiter.

Again.

Again? Well, yes. Fifteen years ago this month – almost to the day of Anthony’s impact event (cue X-Files theme) Jupiter was given the kicking of its life when, one after another, no fewer than 21 pieces of comet slammed into it.

This was one of the most memorable astronomical events of the past fifty years, no doubt about it. It all started when this was seen on a photograph…

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That used to be a comet, called Shoemaker-Levy 9, and it looked that way because it got too close to Jupiter for comfort. The comet was literally ripped apart by its encounter, into the famous “String of Pearls” seen in that image, and that left astronomers pretty excited. They became even more excited when they calculated that, unbelievably, the remains of the comet would actually slam into Jupiter, one after another! Their calculations showed that, unfortunately, the impacts would occur out of sight, on the far side of Jupiter at that time, but still, it was an amazing and exciting discovery, and on the Big Day, after the predicted time of impact, around the world literally tens of thousands of observers held their breath as they waited for the impact areas to rotate into view so they could see what damage had been caused…

This is what the Hubble Space Telescope saw when it joined in the Jupiter Watch…

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It was better than anyone had dared to hope. Each impact had left its own scar, some much bigger than the one observed by Anthony, and those scars were clearly visible even in small telescopes. While the impact features persisted planetary observers drank in the view as often and for as long as they could, knowing that nothing like that would ever happen again in their lifetimes…

Ah. Wrong.

Fifteen years later, the exact same thing has happened. The Hubble Space Telescope – newly repaired and serviced, and raring to go – has swung around to look Jupiter at short notice, following up an initial observation made by an amateur astronomer. This is the first image it’s sent back…

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That’s the wide angle black and white view. Here’s a zoomed-in colour view…

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Wow… look at that… look at THAT! Something hit Jupiter, and hard.

But just stop for a moment to consider the wonderful, perfect timing of this. This happened 15 years after – almost to the day – Jupiter was hit by something else. It happened just a couple of months after the Hubble Space Telescope was repaired, and fitted with a brand spanking new camera that was able to take pictures of the event at such short notice. It happened the day before the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing, when the world was already going a bit space nuts, and the media were desperate for anything “spacey” to write about. This was almost the perfect astronomical storm.

I haven’t been able to see the impact feature yet, the weather here in Kendal has been, frankly, appalling. That weather has meant I’ve missed not one, not two, but THREE major hand-slapped-across-mouth-gorgeous displays of noctilucent clouds, like this one, seen from Norway (pic from Spaceweather.com)…

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… as well as ALL the good passes of the ISS for this period.

Seriously, I’ve been really, really hacked off with our weather recently, it’s just been laughing at us. On Thursday evening we went camping, to Wasdale Head which is miles away from the Back of Beyond, just past the Middle of Nowhere,  and with no light pollution for miles around I was sooo hoping that the sky would clear enough to allow us to see a starry sky. Fat chance.

It wasn’t even raining when we set off from Kendal at 5.30, blue sky everywhere, but by the time we got to Wasdale Head (nr Ravenglass) it was looking a bit gloomy. The sky was very dark, and as we drove along it Wast Water was a long slab of grey lead. Tatters of torn black clouds were draped and dragging over the tops of the low fells, and it all looked very unpromising, but we thought “what the hell, we’re here now” so we set up the tent. That took about an hour (stop laughing! It’s a new tent, never used it before, so we were v pleased with an hour!) but when it was up it looked GORGEOUS! Easily the best tent in the field. 🙂
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So, once inside, we had a high class Masterchef tea (crisps, Coke, sandwiches and Crunchies) then went for a walk in the deepening gloom. The outside world looked very, very dramatic by then, as if the colour had been turned off and replaced by black and white, and it was so dark by 10pm we almost stepped on and squelched a poor frog that was hopping across the path between two black fields…
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We retreated into our sleeping bags at midnightish, with me still hoping I’d peel back the doorflap and see a sky painted blue and white and silver with a blaze of noctilucent clouds, all reflected in the still waters of Wast Water…
… and then the rain started. By 4am it was actually frightening; the wind was howling like a werewolf family reunion, and wave after wave of rain was sluicing down the valley, each one punching our tent  like Tyson landing blows on a sap opponent, and I was sure we were going to be blown over like a cheap dinghy on the ocean.
And space geek that I am, laying there, watching the fabric of the tent around me rippling and billowing like a ship’s sail in a storm, I couldn’t help wondering what it would have been like to witness the impact of that asteroid/comet/whatever on Jupiter, 360 million miles away… A fireball streaking through the Jovian atmosphere… a blinding flash as the object hit the cloudtops… a shockwave pulsing through and rippling across the tops of the clouds… a churning ball of fire and gases exploding, blossoming out of the hole left by the impact…
Now that would be a storm to see, wouldn’t it? I 
I didn’t hear any thunder from inside our tent – though to be honest the rain was so loud on the roof and sides of our poor tent we wouldn’t have heard thunder if it had been right on top of us – but the sky stayed black and thick all night, never clearing, not even for a moment, so all hopes of seeing any NLC were swept away. When we emerged again next morning, to find great puddles of muddy water dotted all over the field like WW1 shell holes,  we were just lucky we’d made it through the night. But hey, it was an adventure! 🙂
… and what has that to do with an asteroid or comet hitting Jupiter?
Well, the moral of this tale, dear reader, is that no matter what you might miss in the sky, however fed up or cheated or “Aaaaaggghhh! It’s so unfair!!!!” you feel, Out There, in space, in our own solar system or further away, there’s always Something Else going on, something that will make you think “Wow…!”, and will make you look up at the sky again on the next clear night…
…and remind you exactly why you love astronomy, and why you’re so helplessly, head over heels in love with the universe.
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8 Responses

  1. It really has been a sight! Keep trying!

  2. noctilucent clouds… is that pict from Finland, not Norway?
    The copyright sign name is finlandese, Jari Luomanen
    –>

    http://jari.pic.fi/kuvat/

    ..ups, there the photo is! Yes, its def from Finland.
    Not Norway… :))

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