The Lowdown on Jupiter’s Black Eye

Glenn Orton
Glenn Orton

We’ve had such great feedback and comments to our earlier post about the recent impact at Jupiter that we wanted to give you more details, plus answer some questions. My name is Glenn Orton, a senior research scientist at JPL. My colleague and fellow JPL blogger Leigh Fletcher is on a well-deserved vacation for a bit, and he filled in for me while I was at a conference talking about another aspect of our research and the Jupiter impact last week.

I’ve been on Anthony Wesley’s email list (as I am for many in the amateur astronomy community) for some time, so it wasn’t happenstance that I was aware of his Jupiter observation. Anthony is the Australian-based amateur astronomer who alerted the world to this big impact. When we received news of his discovery, we immediately wanted to verify it with some of the sophisticated telescopes NASA uses. Having actively observed in both the visible and infrared during the Shoemaker-Levy-9 impacts in 1994, I was aware that a quick verification was possible by looking at a wavelength with lots of gaseous absorption, which suppresses light reflected from Jupiter’s deep clouds.

This image shows a large impact shown on the bottom left on Jupiter’s south polar region captured on July 20, 2009, by NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility in Mauna Kea, Hawaii. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Infrared Telescope Facility

Luck was on our side. Several months before the impact, our JPL team had been awarded observing time on NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility (IRTF) atop Mauna Kea in Hawaii. We had the midnight to 6 a.m. shift (from our Pasadena office, which meant we started work at 3 a.m.) so much of our observing time would take place before Jupiter rose over Australian skies. Another piece of luck is that Anthony’s “day job” involves software engineering so he was able to watch the same telescope instrument status and data screens as we were, while we did remote-style observing from the IRTF over the Internet. He would also be doing his own (now *very important*) post-impact observing. Weather was just as “iffy” over Mauna Kea as in Australia, so it was lucky for all of us that we could catch this event.

With Leigh, several JPL summer interns and me huddled at our side-by-side computers at JPL (one with instrument controls and one showing the data), and Anthony online from Australia, we got started. We knew the location of Anthony’s dark spot would be coming over Jupiter’s rising limb (edge) just as our allotted time was beginning. A near-infrared spectrometer was in the center of the telescope from the previous observer. Although it wasn’t our instrument of choice (we wanted images!), it has a very nice guide camera sensitive to the near infrared, so we used it rather than waiting for the 20-40 minute hiatus needed by the telescope operator to move it out of the way and put our preferred instrument in its place. This turned out to be a good decision because the very first image showed us something brighter than anyplace else on the planet — exactly where Anthony’s dark feature was located. For me, this totally clinched the case that this was an impact. Even better was the fact that Anthony was looking on in real time. We e-mailed him what was obvious - he was *definitely* the father of a new impact!

Right after this we collected data that may help us sort out any exotic components of the impactor or of Jupiter’s atmosphere and just how high the particulates have spread. Then we switched instruments to something at much longer wavelengths that told us the temperatures were higher, and that ammonia gas had probably been pushed up from Jupiter’s troposphere (the lower part of the atmosphere) and ejected into its stratosphere (higher up in the atmosphere). We finished up with our preferred (more versatile) near-infrared camera and ended up, pretty tired, at 9 a.m. (this was a midnight to 6 a.m. run in Hawaii, and in California we were three hours ahead). Then we took some of the screen shots we’d been making and used them to submit a press release. Another person had already alerted a clearinghouse for important astronomical bulletins, so that was another thing that was important but that we didn’t need to do.

Now some responses to posts:

Good post from Mike Salway who is another one of the cadre of the world’s talented Jupiter observers. I should note that, in fact, there aren’t all that many of us who track the time evolution of phenomena in the planets in the professional community, either (see the web pages for the International Outer Planet Watch:

Asim. Neither NASA nor JPL is capable of observing everything in the sky. There is a program to search for asteroids whose orbits will intersect the Earth’s, but not at Jupiter. In fact, it’s unlikely this object could have been seen, given that it may have been at most a half kilometer in size. For Shoemaker-Levy 9, we were both lucky and the disruption of the comets left a lot of very shiny material around it which made it easier to see.

Denise. It hit quite a bit further south than the Shoemaker-Levy 9 fragments, almost at 60 deg S latitude.

Patrick, Jim, BobK. I suspect that the only link between this and the SL9 fragments is the voracious appetite of Jupiter, the great gravitational vacuum cleaner in that part of the solar system! SL9 fragments impacted from the south; this was from the east.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

    29 Responses to “The Lowdown on Jupiter’s Black Eye”

  1. Luis Says:
    July 29th, 2009 at 8:08 am

    Thanks for the additional information Glenn, this was very helpful.

  2. John Says:
    July 30th, 2009 at 3:08 am

    I’m wondering if the impact could have effect on the trajectionary of the planet around the sun. Could this have the same impact as Saturnus and Uranus to a lesser extend, but yet have triggered something big ?

  3. patrick lentze Says:
    July 30th, 2009 at 10:53 am

    what a beautiful picture! planets are my favourite subject in astronomy. thank you very much for the information.

  4. John Sanford Says:
    July 30th, 2009 at 10:56 am

    Thanks for your ‘inside’ account of your Jupiter impact observations last week. Lucky you had time on the IRTF that morning! Almost as if you knew it was coming! I visited Tony and his observatory in January 2008 and was impressed with his observing-seing-temperature theories and applications.
    Looking forward to following the new website for NEOs.
    John (5736)
    Starhome Observatory
    Springville, CA.

  5. Marshall Says:
    July 30th, 2009 at 2:06 pm

    Will you all be able to differentiate between spectra resulting from impacting object components versus whatever gases or aerosols may have been ejected from the lower Jovian atmosphere?

  6. steve Says:
    July 30th, 2009 at 7:27 pm

    about three years ago while looking at jupiter i saw a round ball of something fly by
    my 8 inch telescope it came and went in about 2 seconds i saw this thing 5 times
    since the first time. the last time was on 6/27/09/ at 5:07 am i put it on my cell phone to save the info that was the first time i told my friend i think its orbiting jupiter
    could this have been what hit jupiter
    thanks steve

  7. Marty Says:
    July 31st, 2009 at 2:47 pm

    Steve: Two seconds across your field of view indicates that it was moving far too fast, or was far to close to Earth, to be orbiting Jupiter. I think it was an Earth satellite(s) that you saw. If you see it again in the future, that of course confirms that it isn’t what hit Jupiter.

  8. Chris Mance Says:
    August 1st, 2009 at 4:02 am

    Hi there, great reading, thanks. I have a question for anyoen out there. This impact on Jupiter, the bright area on Venus, and a fresh looking meteorite on Mars……could some or all of these events be linked in some way. is there perhaps a ‘movie’ style pile of space debris on a fly-by at the moment, i.e very close in cosmic terms to our world? Is our planet at greater risk because of the Jupiter event? I mean, if we didn’t see this object approaching Jupiter, could something of a similar size creep up on us un-observed?? Thanks, Chris

    Orton says:
    No, there is no “movie style” swarm of things out there. I think we’re just beginning to be able to detect the “normal”, if violent, things that take place in our solar system as a matter of course. Scientists who study the formation of the solar system note that all the craters in various bodies (the moon, Mercury, Mars, even some of Jupiter’s larger
    satellites) note a particular epoch which they label the “late heavy
    bombardment”. There’s no reason to think that we’re in a period we
    should call the “current never bombardment”. In some ways, all of these
    phenomena (except Venus, which needs to be proven) are helping us to determine just what the rates and types of interactions there are between bodies - whether gravitational or collisional.

  9. Meteor Wayne Says:
    August 1st, 2009 at 5:10 am

    I was wondering if a search is underway through archived data to see of the object was detected before impact. I would be fascinating to know what it’s orbit was; whether it was in a heliocentric orbit or a Jovian one like Shoemaker Levey 9 was before it hit Jupiter.

  10. Jonny Acker Says:
    August 1st, 2009 at 11:26 pm

    Very exciting stuff Glenn! It was great talking to you tonight at Marie Callenders, and I hope you have fun working through the night.

  11. BJ O’Neil Says:
    August 3rd, 2009 at 1:43 am

    We are but only now learning to direct a bit of attentions to such phenonenae. They occur with astonishing frequency within our local solar neighborhood. And in systems boyond the Sun there be countless untold events both hard at woprk destroying and just as dilligantly creating new forms of unimaginal forms of existance.

  12. Raven Says:
    August 3rd, 2009 at 6:24 am

    I also would like to know if the object that hit, could have impacted the timeing
    of either the planets rotation time or trajectory around the sun.
    Even if such changes were very small, after a 100 years they could have major affects
    on the solar system no?

  13. Ken Says:
    August 3rd, 2009 at 11:54 am

    Since we know of two impacts in 15 years on Jupiter, does this change the probability of impacts around our solar system such as Jupiter or Earth? Maybe there’s a swarm of comets coming or asteroids changing orbits. Or are 2 impacts on Jupiter in 15 years another fluke?

  14. Ileane Says:
    August 3rd, 2009 at 2:44 pm

    I am hoping that this object will be named after it’s discoverer. How long will it take before the object gets Anthony Wesley’s name? Does he get to pick a different name if he doesn’t want to use his own?

    This discovery truly highlights the “impact” that amateurs observers have on astronomy. It is very encouraging and should be used as an example to inspire the next generation.

    Cheers Anthony!

  15. Andrew Brown 3488 Says:
    August 3rd, 2009 at 3:14 pm

    It would very interesting to follow up Meteor Wayne’s suggestion to see if the impacting body could be located on recent pre impact observations, to ascertain if it was in Heliocentric or Jovecentric orbit?

    I suppose that at the distance of Jupiter, small Near Jupiter Objects & Jupiter crossing objects would be very difficult to find.

    I quite like Marshall’s post too, to see whether or not the composition of the impacting body could be determined. My guess is that the heat from the ‘fireball’ (there was no fire as there is no Oxygen) would have cooked the original chemistry.

    I have seen suggestions that this impact may have been a fragment from SL9.

    I doubt it, I think that this is completely unrelated. It is worth noting that the SL9 fragments hit 44 degrees south. The recent Wesley Impact (as it is informally known) was 57 degrees south.

    Is the newly refurbshed & upgraded HST been used again to monitor the ongoing development of the dark spot as it spreads out in the Jovian stratospheric winds?

    What a spectacular first result from the newly refurbished HST & a real Kudos to the STS 125 Atlantis crew.

    Andrew Brown 3488.

  16. Kass Andre Says:
    August 3rd, 2009 at 3:26 pm

    After all the billions wasted by NASA on meaningless space exploration and the hype about the so-called deep space tracking network, taxpayers may question why the space agency failed to detect a kilometer-sized object entering the solar system. The excuse given that NASA-JPL instruments weren’t looking in that direction seem lame given the large appropriation NASA gets. Humiliating Fact: An amateur found it, after hitting Jupiter, costing taxpayers zero. Logical conclusion: Time to close down NASA nonsense and put our money to better use, dealing with more earthly problems, such as curing disease and preventing the destruction of our environment. Given NASA’s history of costly overruns and mistakes, i.e.the defective Hubble mirror, peeling foam on its unsafe shuttles, and destruction of a Mars lander due to the inability to differentiate between kilometers and miles. (were the people responsible ever fired for these multi-million-dollar errors?). Since NASA is unable to even warn us of potentially destructive space objects headed our way, its time to end its “science welfare” programs. The Moon and Mars are dead planets. We spent billions to prove it..what most already knew. So what? Where’s the real benefit to the American people? Teflon? Tang? Wow…some return on our money. For decades, NASA’S costly programs have benefited mostly its employees, corporate space-industry interests and “Trekkies”. Meanwhile, 47 million Americans suffer because they lack healthcare. That is a life-threatening fact much more vital to human beings than finding water ice on Mars. Current economic conditions and just plain common sense inform us that now is the time to redirect national priorities, allowing government to apply NASA’s yearly 14-billion dollar budget towards programs that directly benefit the public, and stop wasting time and treasure on trivial space pursuits like the space station and trips to Mars. The Moon, Mars and other heavenly bodies have been there for billions of years. They will still be there after we have dealt with more pressing problems confronting our own planet. Meanwhile, we can probably depend on watchful amateurs to keep an eye out for us…for free.

    Blog editor note: JPL scientist Glenn Orton responded to a previous comment like this:
    Orton says: Neither NASA nor JPL is capable of observing everything in the sky. There is a program to search for asteroids whose orbits will intersect the Earth’s, but not at Jupiter. In fact, it’s unlikely this object could have been seen, given that it may have been at most a half kilometer in size. For Shoemaker-Levy 9, we were both lucky and the disruption of the comets left a lot of very shiny material around it which made it easier to see.

  17. mikel d sipes Says:
    August 3rd, 2009 at 6:32 pm

    i have wondered what would the effect have been if the s/l 9 had a direct impact with one of the moons? i think that would also have effected the orbits of the other moons& maybe even rotation or trajectory of the planets orbit.

  18. kishan Says:
    August 6th, 2009 at 12:01 am

    well!!! that was a great piece of informations….. thanks glenn……….

  19. Saijin Says:
    August 7th, 2009 at 11:50 am

    How wonderful for Anthony to have captured this on July 19th, the anniversary of the date in 1595 when Kepler looked at his own drawing of a circle inside of a triangle inside of a circle and then, inspired, went on to theorize on the Harmony of the Spheres and to find the greatest measure of disonance of 18:19 to be between Mars and Jupiter, which he had to leave unexplained. (The asteroid belt was not discovered until 1801.) Now here we have one of those very objects impacting Jupiter! The name Anthony, in Latin, means ‘worthy of praise’ and derives from Anthony the Great. According to Athanasius, Saint Anthony heard a voice telling him, “Go out and see.” Thanks, Anthony for being in ‘harmony’ with the spheres!

  20. gootg of all Says:
    August 12th, 2009 at 12:58 pm

    Greetings Glenn,
    First, Praise for you decisions during the observation of this event. Glad it worked out for you (did you thank the last observer for leaving you the instrument?).

    Orton says: It was our regularly scheduled time, actually. Quite a coincidence.

    Second, Is there a site on the net where amateurs as myself might see what you viewed? It is always best to spread the wealth of knowledge so that understanding is common and accepted.

    Orton says: Not quite yet, as we’re still working on the data (with a lot of student help); none of the data are very good without processing to remove lots of known (and sometimes unexpected) instrumental effects.

    Third, Thank you for the posting, I realize the time and effort to post such an incident may be quite exhausting but the effort is appreciated.

    Orton says: Oh, I have my 8-in Celetron too, so I know…


  21. Edward J Cox Says:
    August 12th, 2009 at 5:04 pm

    This impact evidence should give those of us here on Earth pause and bring forth the realization that NEA can and do impact without warning.

    NASA’s been tasked to implement a NEAR program and improve our chances of finding an incoming rock prior to an impact yet very little has occurred and little funding asked for or expended.

    When we all look up and see a rock burning it’s way into our atmosphere it will be to late. Much like the diinosaurs our reign on earth will end in darkness suffocation and death for much of the planet’s life.

    We need to awaken and demand more action from ours and the rest of the worlds governments. This matter needs attention. Not trying to be an alarmist but this matter is truly a “life or death” issue.

  22. Jeff Says:
    August 13th, 2009 at 1:24 am

    Has there been any educated estimates as to what the size of the object was before impact, or is there more data that needs to be collected before an accurate assessment can be determined.

  23. Ralph Amodei Says:
    August 13th, 2009 at 12:11 pm

    How long do we have if an object big enough to do damage is heading towards earth to steer it off course?

    Don Yeomans, JPL senior research scientist, responds:

    How long an interval we would have to deflect a hazardous asteroid away from the Earth would depend primarily upon how soon the object was discovered and a secure orbit determined so a future impact threat could be identified well in advance. Thus, the current goal for NASA’s Near-Earth object observations program is to find 90% of the large near-Earth objects, trace their motions for a hundred years into the future to check for potential threats and physically characterize a representative subset of them.

  24. Joseph Curry Allison Jr Says:
    August 13th, 2009 at 12:13 pm

    Two things have impressed my mind in the most personal of measures.

    Seeing the Milky Way from the top of Blood Mountain in Georgia on a cold, clear, moonless night, from the Appalachian Trail:

    and seeing the Comet that was in the night sky, and so close, a few years back,here in Atlanta.

    With those to Reference, these two dimensional pictures are a vast informational pool to me, now having the depths of near Space in my consciousness.

  25. William Bambeck Says:
    August 13th, 2009 at 3:41 pm

    The orbit of an impacted planet most likely will not be affected to any meaningful extent by collision with these objects. The mass of some of these asteroids may be large in terms of the damage one could do to life on Earth, but the mass of almost every one of them, especially the ones within the orbit of Mars, is miniscule compared to a planet, especially Jupiter, the largest of all our Solar planets. The ratios of the masses of planet to asteroid are likely to have many, many trailing zeroes.

    The planet has far more influence on the orbit of the asteroid.

    Look up the masses on Wikipedia or such, and do the math, please. Then we will all know.

    On the other hand, collisions, or even near collisions, between asteroids do have meaningful, sometimes significant effects on their orbits, because their masses are within an order of magnitude or two of each other. That’s what makes predicting their orbits so difficult.

    Thank you.
    May God bless you.

  26. 800771168 Says:
    September 17th, 2009 at 6:21 am

    Very, very nice

  27. SATISH AROTA M.D. Says:
    September 18th, 2009 at 3:06 am

    If no one saw it before impact It may be some volcano eruption from with in jupitar

  28. AndyFletcherv Says:
    April 12th, 2011 at 7:28 am

    Hey - I am really delighted to discove this. great job!

  29. isis solar Says:
    August 23rd, 2011 at 12:38 pm

    isis solar…

    Blog - NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory » Blog Archive » The Lowdown on Jupiter’s Black Eye…

Leave a Reply

Please keep comments on the topic of the post, and avoid using links to external sites. Selected comments will be chosen for posting.