Flash in the Pan
As Mashable reports, a video captured by an amateur astronomer in Japan shows a super-bright comet, also known as a bolide, exploding as it collides with Jupiter.
A gas giant, Jupiter has a powerful gravitational pull that's caused similar spectacular crashes over the years. This one wasn't even particularly powerful — unlike some previous Jupiterian impacts that humanity has been able to see, there doesn't seem to be any lingering visible damage to the planet's gaseous atmosphere — but it's fascinating to watch nonetheless. The scene has doomed-fly-to-lantern energy, albeit on a cosmic scale.
"There was another impact on Jupiter last night!" noted planetary astronomer Heidi Hammel, who works with NASA's James Webb Space Telescope, wrote in a Nov 16 quote tweet — if we can still call it that — of the original video. "The bright flash is a bolide — a shooting star in the atmosphere of Jupiter."
There was another impact on Jupiter last night! The bright flash is a bolide - a shooting star in the atmosphere of Jupiter. Too small to leave an impact site like we saw in 1994 and 2009. https://t.co/8JRPBqA0gm
— Dr Heidi B. Hammel (@hbhammel) November 16, 2023
Bolides like the one seen in the video aren't unique to Jupiter; more commonly known as fireballs, a small handful of the ultra-bright celestial bodies enter Earth's atmosphere every year. They burn out quickly, and often make their way into Earth's atmosphere over expansive oceanic regions, and are therefore hard to catch from the ground.
While this fireball may not have done any real damage to Jupiter, other collisions certainly have. Back in 1994, the gas giant was pelted with pieces of the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 over the course of several days, an event that according to NASA left "huge, dark scars in the planet's atmosphere and lofting superheated plumes into its stratosphere." And Hammel, who at the time "led visible-light observations of the comet" with NASA's Hubble Space Telescope, counts that impact as a turning point in Earth-asteroid relationships.
"Shoemaker-Levy 9 was a sort of punch in the gut," Hammel recounted of the impact back in 2019. "It really invigorated our understanding of how important it is to monitor our local neighborhood, and to understand what the potential is for impacts on Earth in the future.”
Bolides haven't presented a huge problem for planet Earth, and as NASA's successful DART test showed last year, humankind has made significant progress in our asteroid defense systems. But if this latest bolide is anything, it's a reminder that the final frontier is sometimes a game of brutal cosmic bumper cars.
More on planetary defense: NASA Pleased with the Degree to Which It Kicked This Asteroid's A**
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