Last Month’s Jupiter Impact Explained

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Jupiter Impact Both Not As Cool, and Yet Even Cooler than You Probably Thought.

A little over a month ago, an amateur astronomer from Texas called Ethan Chappel spotted a large flash on Jupiter. Thankfully, he had his telescope’s camera running, and he caught some great images of the flash. You can see an edited version of the Jupiter impact in the video below:

Turns Out, However, That Object Wasn’t All That Big…

Given the size of Jupiter, that flash looks gargantuan. What’s that? You need a reminder of how big Jupiter is? Well, it’s roughly a tenth of the circumference of the sun, and about a 1300 times bigger than Earth. Here’s a pic to demonstrate:

Comparative data-lazy-sizes of Earth, Jupiter, and the Sun

Comparative sizes of Earth, Jupiter, and the Sun

Now, if you’re looking at the video of that flash like I was, then you’ve got to be saying to yourself, “That flash looked about the size of our moon!”

Astronomers (or at least space journalists) across the internets assumed that the object responsible for the flash must have been huge, as well. Turns out they we were wrong.

In fact, after studying the impact for a few weeks, the real astronomers calculated that it was a garden variety asteroid that hit Jupiter that night. By “garden variety,” I mean this. The asteroid was likely between 12 and 16 meters wide, and its mass was roughly 408 metric tons. In Earth terms, some of these earthmovers are bigger. As we all remember from physics class, though, force = mass x acceleration. So even if the asteroid wasn’t particularly large, it might have been moving really fast. It did, after all, release about 240 kilotons of TNT worth of energy. If you’re wondering, the atomic blast at Hiroshima was roughly 15 kilotons. Conversely, however, the February 2013 airburst over the Russian city of Chelyabinsk was about twice as energetic. That asteroid, it turns out, was only slightly bigger than the one that hit Jupiter last month.

The Takeaway

According to Ricardo Hueso, a researcher at the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU), these kinds of impacts happen to Jupiter between 20 and 60 times a year. So while the impact discovered by Ethan Cappel wasn’t all that rare, that means that you have a chance of catching one for yourself if you keep your telescope trained on Jupiter.

I also can’t help but let my imagination run wild. I dream of some alien anthropologist on a distant world looking at Earth a couple of hundred years from now. I can picture that alien seeing the flash from Chelyabinsk and wondering if it wiped us all out or not. Of course, Jupiter is not light-years away, and there probably isn’t life on the gas-giant itself, but there could be some freaked out beings on Europa under all of that ice. Who knows?

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Brandon Humphreys

Brandon Humphreys

I'm a wizard. I write stuff and it goes from my head into yours - Magic! Apart from that, I am the Senior Editor for Space Porn, a veteran, a rock guitarist, and a teacher.

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