Scientists have spotted an object smashing into Jupiter, leaving behind a bright flash.
The collision was caught by the Juno spacecraft, a Nasa probe that is in orbit around the planet.
Juno by chance spotted the flash above Jupiter’s clouds last year, scientists said. After examination, they were able to determine that the data showed it was a “bolide”, or a very bright explosion from a meteoroid hitting the gas giant’s upper atmosphere.
Such collisions are not rare. Jupiter is hit more often than Earth is.
But catching one is lucky, since they are far more difficult to spot.
“Jupiter undergoes a huge number of impacts per year, much more than the Earth, so impacts themselves are not rare,” said SwRI’s Dr. Rohini Giles, lead author of a paper outlining the findings in Geophysical Research Letters. “However, they are so short-lived that it is relatively unusual to see them.
“Only larger impacts can be seen from Earth, and you have to be lucky to be pointing a telescope at Jupiter at exactly the right time. In the last decade, amateur astronomers have managed to capture six impacts on Jupiter.”
Juno arrived at Jupiter in 2016. Since then, it has been looking into the auroras that appear over its surface, attempting to understand how bright they are as well as other characteristics.
To do so, it drops close to the surface of the planet every 53 days. It spins around an observes a chunk of the planet as it does.
It was performing one of those sweeps as it spotted the bright flash.
“This observation is from a tiny snapshot in time — Juno is a spinning spacecraft, and our instrument observed that point on the planet for just 17 milliseconds, and we don’t know what happened to the bright flash outside of that time frame,” said Dr Giles. “But we do know that we didn’t see it on an earlier spin or a later spin, so it must have been pretty short-lived.”
Juno had seen similar bright flashses in the past, and they have been identified as Transient Luminous Events – lights that appear in the atmosphere as a result of lightning. But researchers established that the new phenomenon was similarly short-lived but otherwise different: it lasted longer, and had a variety of different characteristics.
Impacts on Jupiter can have significant effects on the planet. In 1994, it was hit by the object known as Comet Shoemaker-Levy, the largest ever impactor to be observed.
Scars were left behind on the planet’s surface for months, and 15 years after the impact it was still resposnible for 95 per cent of the stratospheric water on Jupiter. As such, the observation of other impacts could give vital information about how the gas giant is composed.