Jupiter is sporting a new scar after a mystery object hit the gaseous planet this week, NASA scientists say.
An amateur astronomer in Australia noticed the new mark on the planet Sunday and tipped off scientists at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, who then confirmed it was the result of a new impact, NASA said. It’s not clear what the object was that crashed into Jupiter’s poisonous atmosphere. Glenn Orton, a JPL scientist, told the magazine New Scientist that it could have been a block of ice from somewhere in Jupiter’s neighborhood, or a wandering comet that was too faint for astronomers to have detected before impact. “We were extremely lucky to be seeing Jupiter at exactly the right time, the right hour, the right side of Jupiter to witness the event. We couldn’t have planned it better,” Orton said in a NASA interview. Scientists also don’t know how large the object was, but the impact scar it created is about the same size as Earth, JPL astronomer Leigh Fletcher told the magazine. It is only the second time scientists have been able to observe such an impact on Jupiter. The first happened 15 years ago, when comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 broke into 21 pieces and hit the planet’s atmosphere. “Given the rarity of these events, it’s extremely exciting to be involved in these observations,” Fletcher said in a NASA interview.
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Thermal images taken by NASA also showed a bright spot where the impact took place, which meant the crash warmed the lower atmosphere in that area, New Scientist said. Researchers also found hints of higher-than-normal amounts of ammonia in the upper atmosphere. The Shoemaker-Levy comet also churned up extra ammonia, the magazine said. Jupiter is the fifth planet from the sun and the largest in our solar system. Its colorful atmosphere is 86 percent hydrogen and 14 percent helium, with tiny amounts of methane, ammonia, phosphine, water, acetylene, ethane, germanium, and carbon monoxide. The chemicals are responsible for producing the different colors of Jupiter’s clouds. The temperature at the top of those clouds is about -145 degrees Celsius (-230 degrees Fahrenheit), but far hotter near the planet’s center. There, the core temperature may be about 24,000 degrees Celsius (43,000 degrees Fahrenheit), hotter than the surface of the sun. The most outstanding feature on Jupiter’s surface is the Great Red Spot, a storm of gas that swirls at a speed of about 360 kilometers (225 miles) per hour at its edge. The diameter of the spot is about three times that of Earth.