A group of amateur astronomers has captured a rare event on Jupiter: a flash of light caused by an object crashing into the giant planet’s atmosphere.
The impact occurred on Aug. 29, 2023, at 1:45 a.m. Japan Standard Time (1645 GMT on Aug. 28), and was observed by several telescopes in Japan and China.
The astronomers were part of the Organized Autotelescopes for Serendipitous Event Survey (OASES) project and Planetary Observation Camera for Optical Transient Surveys (PONCOTS) system, which aims to detect transient phenomena in the solar system. They posted their findings on X, a social media platform formerly known as Twitter, and shared videos showing a brief burst of light coming from Jupiter’s cloud tops.
The flash was also independently confirmed by another amateur astronomer in Zhengzhou, Henan province, China, who was recording Jupiter’s surface with a camera. The impact site was located on the steep inner rim of a crater named Pontécoulant G, about 250 miles (400 kilometers) away from the intended landing point of Russia’s Luna 25 probe, which crashed into the moon earlier that month.
The OASES team used data from multiple observers to create a high-resolution image of Jupiter at the moment of the impact. They also estimated the size and speed of the impactor, which they believe was a small comet or asteroid measuring about 10 feet (3 meters) across and traveling at about 37 miles per second (60 kilometers per second).
Jupiter is known to be a frequent target of cosmic collisions, thanks to its powerful gravity and proximity to the main asteroid belt. The most famous example was in 1994, when fragments of the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 slammed into Jupiter’s atmosphere, creating huge scars that lasted for months. Jupiter is thought to play a protective role for the inner solar system, by absorbing or deflecting potentially hazardous objects that could threaten Earth and other planets.
The latest impact on Jupiter is one of several that have been observed by amateur astronomers in recent years, demonstrating the power and importance of citizen science. By using relatively inexpensive equipment and sharing their data online, these enthusiasts can contribute to the scientific understanding of our dynamic and fascinating solar system.