Hubble scrutinizes site of mysterious flash and missing cloud belt on Jupiter

Jun 16, 2010
Detailed observations made by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope have led researchers to believe that the flash of light seen on Jupiter on 3 June was a meteor. This visitor from space did not plunge deep enough into the atmosphere to explode and leave behind any telltale cloud of debris, as seen in previous Jupiter collisions. Hubble’s sharp vision and ultraviolet sensitivity were used to seek out any trace evidence of the aftermath of the cosmic collision (right inset). Images taken on June 7 show no sign of dark debris above Jupiter’s cloud tops. This means that the object didn't descend beneath the clouds and explode as a fireball. If it had, dark sooty blast debris would have been ejected and would have subsequently settled down onto the cloud tops. Australian amateur astronomer Anthony Wesley first saw the flash at 22:31 CEST on 3 June. He was watching a live video feed of Jupiter from his telescope. In the Philippines, amateur astronomer Chris Go confirmed that he had simultaneously recorded the transitory event on video. This natural color photo was taken in visible light with Hubble’s Wide Field Camera 3. Credit: NASA, ESA, M. H. Wong (University of California, Berkeley, USA), H. B. Hammel (Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colorado, USA), A. A. Simon-Miller (Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland, USA) and the Jupiter Impact Science Team.

At 22:31 (CEST) on 3 June 2010 Australian amateur astronomer Anthony Wesley saw a two-second-long flash of light on the disc of Jupiter. He was watching a live video feed from his telescope. In the Philippines, amateur astronomer Chris Go confirmed that he had simultaneously recorded the transitory event on video. Wesley was the discoverer of the now world-famous July 2009 impact.

Astronomers around the world suspected that something significant must have hit the giant planet to unleash a flash of energy bright enough to be seen here on Earth, about 770 million kilometres away. But they didn't know how just how big it was or how deeply it had penetrated into the atmosphere. Over the past two weeks there have been ongoing searches for the "black-eye" pattern of a deep direct hit like those left by former impactors.

The sharp vision and ultraviolet sensitivity of the 3 aboard the /ESA were used to seek out any trace evidence of the aftermath of the cosmic collision. Images taken on 7 June — just over three days after the flash was sighted — show no sign of debris above Jupiter's cloud tops. This means that the object didn't descend beneath the clouds and explode as a fireball. If it had done, then dark sooty blast debris would have been ejected and would have rained down onto the clouds.

Instead the flash is thought to have come from a giant meteor burning up high above Jupiter's cloud tops, which did not plunge deep enough into the atmosphere to explode and leave behind any telltale cloud of debris, as seen in previous Jupiter collisions.

"The cloud tops and the impact site would have appeared dark in the ultraviolet and visible images due to debris from an explosion," says team member Heidi Hammel of the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colorado, USA. "We can see no feature that has those distinguishing characteristics in the known vicinity of the impact, suggesting there was no major explosion and no 'fireball'."

Dark smudges marred Jupiter's atmosphere when a series of fragments of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 hit Jupiter in July 1994. A similar phenomenon occurred in July 2009 when a suspected asteroid slammed into Jupiter. The latest intruder is estimated to be only a fraction of the size of these previous impactors and is thought to have been a meteor.

"Observations of these impacts provide a window on the past — onto the processes that shaped our Solar System in its early history," says team member Leigh Fletcher of the University of Oxford, UK. "Comparing the two collisions — from 2009 and 2010 — will hopefully yield insights into the types of impact processes in the outer Solar System, and the physical and chemical response of Jupiter's atmosphere to these amazing events."

As a bonus, Hubble's observations also allowed scientists to get a close-up look at changes in Jupiter's atmosphere following the disappearance of the dark cloud feature known as the Southern Equatorial Belt several months ago.

In the Hubble view, a slightly higher altitude layer of white ammonia ice crystal clouds appears to obscure the deeper, darker belt clouds. "Weather forecast for Jupiter's Southern Equatorial Belt: cloudy with a chance of ammonia," Hammel says.

The team predicts that these ammonia clouds should clear out in a few months, as they have done in the past. The clearing of the ammonia cloud layer should begin with a number of dark spots like those seen by Hubble along the boundary of the south tropical zone.

"The Hubble images tell us these spots are holes resulting from localised downdrafts. We often see these types of holes when a change is about to occur," Simon-Miller says.

"The Southern Equatorial Belt last faded in the early 1970s. We haven't been able to study this phenomenon at this level of detail before," Simon-Miller adds. "The changes of the last few years are adding to an extraordinary database on dramatic cloud changes on ."

Explore further: Computers beat brainpower when it comes to counting stars

More information: Jupiter Impact: Mystery of the Missing Debris

Related Stories

Jupiter Impact: Mystery of the Missing Debris

Jun 15, 2010

On June 3rd, 2010, something hit Jupiter. A comet or asteroid descended from the black of space, struck the planet's cloudtops, and disintegrated, producing a flash of light so bright it was visible in backyard t ...

What Hit Jupiter?

Aug 03, 2009

(PhysOrg.com) -- It began with a furrowed brow, a moment of puzzlement, quickly dismissed.

Hubble captures rare Jupiter collision

Jul 25, 2009

For the past several days the world's largest telescopes have been trained on Jupiter. Not to miss the potentially new science in the unfolding drama 580 million kilometres away, Matt Mountain, director of ...

Jupiter has lost one of its cloud stripes

May 14, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- New photographs of the gas giant Jupiter, the first taken on May 9, show the massive reddish band of clouds known as the Southern Equatorial Belt in the planet’s southern hemisphere has ...

Hubble Images Suggest Rogue Asteroid Smacked Jupiter

Jun 03, 2010

(PhysOrg.com) -- Without warning, a mystery object struck Jupiter on July 19, 2009, leaving a dark bruise the size of the Pacific Ocean. The spot first caught the eye of an amateur astronomer in Australia, ...

Recommended for you

A sharp eye on Southern binary stars

6 hours ago

Unlike our sun, with its retinue of orbiting planets, many stars in the sky orbit around a second star. These binary stars, with orbital periods ranging from days to centuries, have long been the primary ...

Hubble image: A cross-section of the universe

7 hours ago

An image of a galaxy cluster taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope gives a remarkable cross-section of the Universe, showing objects at different distances and stages in cosmic history. They range ...

Cosmologists weigh cosmic filaments and voids

10 hours ago

(Phys.org) —Cosmologists have established that much of the stuff of the universe is made of dark matter, a mysterious, invisible substance that can't be directly detected but which exerts a gravitational ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Cosmologists weigh cosmic filaments and voids

(Phys.org) —Cosmologists have established that much of the stuff of the universe is made of dark matter, a mysterious, invisible substance that can't be directly detected but which exerts a gravitational ...

Hubble image: A cross-section of the universe

An image of a galaxy cluster taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope gives a remarkable cross-section of the Universe, showing objects at different distances and stages in cosmic history. They range ...

Hackathon team's GoogolPlex gives Siri extra powers

(Phys.org) —Four freshmen at the University of Pennsylvania have taken Apple's personal assistant Siri to behave as a graduate-level executive assistant which, when asked, is capable of adjusting the temperature ...

Deadly human pathogen Cryptococcus fully sequenced

Within each strand of DNA lies the blueprint for building an organism, along with the keys to its evolution and survival. These genetic instructions can give valuable insight into why pathogens like Cryptococcus ne ...

Researchers discover target for treating dengue fever

Two recent papers by a University of Colorado School of Medicine researcher and colleagues may help scientists develop treatments or vaccines for Dengue fever, West Nile virus, Yellow fever, Japanese encephalitis and other ...