Jupiter to Serve as Real-Time Lab for Potential Asteroid Impacts on Earth

51680main_jupiter_impact2 Two amateur astronomers who independently observed and videotaped an asteroid striking the giant planet Jupiter on June 3 have opened the possibility of using Jupiter as a giant real-time research lab in space for planetary NEO scientists.

The asteroid was eight to 13 meters in diameter and packed a punch equivalent to a 250- to 1,000-kiloton nuclear bomb — smaller than the violent airburst that decimated trees for 40 kilometers around Tunguska in central Siberia 100 years ago, but similar in its effects on Jupiter's opaque surface..

The impact observations, if supplemented by future observations of asteroid impacts on Jupiter by other amateur astronomers, could help scientists understand the behavior of meteoroids of various dimensions and composition entering an atmosphere at varying angles and speeds, said Sandia National Laboratories researcher Mark Boslough.

“These amateur observations are very important,” Boslough said. “To me, the primary significance is the demonstration that relatively small bolides on Jupiter can directly be observed from Earth, that their energy can be quantified and that such impacts are frequent enough to observe.

“This would be a major scientific achievement,” Boslough said, because “the physics is the same as when something enters Earth’s atmosphere. More data on airbursts build up our understanding based on empirical observations. And we’re looking down on Jupiter, which gives us a perfect observational platform.”

The Shoemaker-Levy comet impact observed on Jupiter in the 1990s, modeled with startling accuracy at Sandia by Boslough with Sandia researcher David Crawford, revolutionized the way researchers treat air bursts on earth. “That modeling directly translated into understanding the Tunguska explosion of the early 20th century and the mystery of Libyan desert glass,” says Boslough. The Libyan desert glass phenomenon involved the discovery of large deposits of shattered glass in the Egyptian desert, where there should be none.

“It seems to me that Jupiter — a big target with tremendous gravitational attraction — should be getting hit by things this size all the time. But apparently nobody is usually watching at the right time,” said Boslough. “Here, two people were watching at the right time. The amateurs are so reliable and sensitive these days that we’re seeing more impacts.”

The huge June 3rd fireball spotted on Jupiter  comes less than a year after a spectacular explosion on July 19, 2009, when what scientist now think was an asteroid about 1,600 feet wide slammed into the planet. That collision created a massive bruise the size of the Pacific Ocean.The new Jupiter crash occurred on June 3 and was spotted by amateur skywatcher Anthony Wesley in Australia and fellow amateur astronomer Christopher Go in the Philippines. Wesley's photos show the Jupiter fireball blazing in the atmosphere of the gas giant planet. So far, no visible scar in the clouds has been reported from the event. 

As Stephen Hawking says, the general consensus is that any comet or asteroid greater than 20 kilometers in diameter that strikes the Earth will result in the complete annihilation of complex life – animals and higher plants. (The asteroid Vesta, for example, one of the destinations of the Dawn Mission, is the size of Arizona).

But back to Professor Hawking, he of black-hole radiation fame: How many times in our galaxy alone has life finally evolved to the equivalent of our planets and animals on some far distant planet, only to be utterly destroyed by an impact? Galactic history suggests it might be a common occurrence. Our cold comfort comes from the adjective "galactic" -that's a hugely different time perspective that our biblical three score and ten.

Casey Kazan via Sandia National Laboratories

error

"The Galaxy" in Your Inbox, Free, Daily