Aussie amateur spots Jupiter impact

By AG staff and AAP 7 June 2010
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An impressive fireball in Jupiter’s atmosphere is the second strike recorded by an enthusiastic amateur astronomer.

FOR THE SECOND TIME in as many years, Australian amateur astronomer Anthony Wesley has rocked his professional peers by reporting a giant cosmic hit on the surface of Jupiter.

Anthony, a computer programmer from Canberra, alerted astronomers to the collision on Thursday. The discovery was later confirmed by another amateur astronomer in the Philippines. “When I saw the flash, I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “The fireball lasted about two seconds and was very bright.”

Anthony, 44, who has described Jupiter as “his passion”, sprung to fame in July 2009 when NASA scientists credited him with spotting a scar the size of the Pacific Ocean near Jupiter’s south pole. It was believed to have been caused by a rare, 1 km-wide comet.

Likely meteor

The latest hit, near the Jovian equator, has not left any visible mark so far, but astronomers are on the lookout. The absence of a detectable gash and the short impact time have led scientists to believe Jupiter was likely struck by a meteor. “We’ve never seen a meteor slam into Jupiter,” says Glenn Orton of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, USA.

“It’s something that anyone who’s interested in the planets or astronomy would have to dream about,” Anthony said last year about the initial discovery. “I certainly had no idea that something like this would ever happen…in my lifetime or that I’d be the one to see it.”

The tiny black smudge on Jupiter’s surface, as seen through his telescope, was later confirmed to be an impact mark the size of Earth. The find was hailed by NASA scientists, and astronomers worldwide, who thought the chances of a second collision following the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 in 1994 were astronomical.

Inspiring others

Anthony said at the time he hoped his discovery would inspire more people, especially Australians, to take up the telescope. “I got into photography of the planets after the Mars approach in 2003 and that again was well publicised and got a lot of people into astronomy. So maybe this will bring some younger people into it again.”

He says amateur astronomers are playing an increasingly vital part in space discovery. “Every night there would be on average 50 to 100 amateur astronomers looking at Jupiter … so it’s more than likely going to be picked up by an amateur before the professionals see it.”

See a video below of the explosion, about 10 seconds into the recording (Anthony Wesley).