Scientists stumble upon a meteor that crashes into Jupiter

This enhanced color image shows a view of Jupiter from NASA Juno in late 2020.

NASA / JPL-Caltech / SwRI / MSSS; image processing by Tanya Oleksuik

Researchers using NASA Juno spacecraft To see Jupiter’s auroras, they say they got lucky last spring and caught a very bright meteoroid explosion in the process.

Such impacts are not uncommon for Jupiter, as it is the largest planet in the solar system with very powerful gravity to boot.

“However, they are so ephemeral that it is relatively rare to see them,” said Rohini Giles of the Southwest Research Institute in a statement. “You have to be lucky to point a telescope at Jupiter at the exact moment.”

Giles is the lead author of a paper published this month in Geophysical Research Letters.

Amateur astronomers have used ground-based telescopes to detect six impacts on the giant planet in the last decade, including a pretty dramatic in 2019. But Giles and his colleagues had a distinct advantage in using Juno by hanging out with Jupiter.

“This bright flash stood out in the data, as it had very different spectral characteristics than the UV emissions from Jupiter’s auroras,” Giles explained.


SwRI scientists studied the area imaged by Juno’s UVS instrument on April 10, 2020, and determined that a large meteoroid had exploded in a bright fireball in Jupiter’s upper atmosphere. The UVS stripe includes a segment of Jupiter’s northern auroral oval, which appears purely green, representing hydrogen emissions. In contrast, the bright spot (see enlargement) appears mostly yellow, indicating significant emissions at longer wavelengths.


By looking at the brightness and other data from the flash, the team estimates that it came from a space rock with a mass between 550 and 3,300 pounds (249 to 1,497 kilograms) impacting the Jovian atmosphere at an altitude of about 140 miles (225 kilometers). . above the top of Jupiter’s clouds.

Things that collide with Jupiter can be a big problem. The biggest hit ever seen on the planet was the impact of Comet Shoemaker Levy 9 in 1994, which was widely studied.

“Asteroid and comet impacts can have a significant impact on the stratospheric chemistry of the planet: 15 years after the impact, Comet Shoemaker Levy 9 was still responsible for 95 percent of the stratospheric water on Jupiter,” Giles said. “Continuing to observe impacts and estimating overall impact rates is therefore an important element in understanding the makeup of the planet.”

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