Ouch, that looks painful!
A photograph captured by amateur astronomer Ethan Chappel appears to show an asteroid slamming into the gas giant Jupiter on Wednesday (Aug. 7). So far, astronomers are still waiting to see whether anyone else spotted the sudden flash, which was located over the planet's South Equatorial Belt.
"Today has felt completely unreal to me," Chappel wrote on Twitter. "Hoping someone else also recorded the impact to seal the deal." Chappel and fellow astrophotographer George Chappel post amazing views of the night sky at their website Chappel Astro.
There's plenty of precedent for such impacts at Jupiter: The planet's massive gravity tugs asteroids and other space debris toward itself. One group of astronomers has estimated an object 16.5 feet to 65 feet (5 to 20 meters) across slams into the planet between one and five times a month.
Those impacts are inevitable given the huge amount of rubble floating through the vastness of space. Astronomers have already identified more than 20,000 objects hanging around in Earth's neighborhood alone, and they know that tally is just a fraction of the total. Such space rocks hit Earth as well, and protecting Earth from them is the purview of a field known as planetary defense, but Jupiter takes more blows because of its mass.
Here's an animation that's more representative of how fast the flash on #Jupiter occurred. Unfortunately, I couldn't make this work without cutting out 6 frames for every 7. pic.twitter.com/POQynVOlA8August 8, 2019
Jupiter's most famous bruise came from the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 in 1994. The comet fragmented and then, over the course of two years, about 20 different chunks fell into the gas giant's banded clouds, leaving dark scars in the clouds.
This impact is unlikely to leave such scars, according to astronomer Heidi Hammel of the Space Science Institute on Twitter, who spearheaded Hubble Space Telescope observations of Shoemaker-Levy 9's impact.
(That's the same telescope that recently unveiled a stunning new image of Jupiter and its slowly shrinking Great Red Spot. That image was captured June 27, long before Chappel's photograph.)
We've reached out to Ethan and George Chappel to find out more about their amazing Jupiter flash photo. This story will be updated as more details are available.
- How a Viral Comet Crash Into Jupiter Helped Popularize the Internet
- Shoemaker-Levy 9's Co-Discoverer Still Chasing Comets, 20 Years Later
- Jupiter's 7 Most Massive Mysteries
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Meghan is a senior writer at Space.com and has more than five years' experience as a science journalist based in New York City. She joined Space.com in July 2018, with previous writing published in outlets including Newsweek and Audubon. Meghan earned an MA in science journalism from New York University and a BA in classics from Georgetown University, and in her free time she enjoys reading and visiting museums. Follow her on Twitter at @meghanbartels.