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Jupiter and the Fireballs

18 September 2023

Gary sent in a story from the New York Times but it is paywalled. A fireball seen crashing into Jupiter. However, it is nothing new as there was a similar story back in 2021 – two fireballs separated by a couple of months. Go to https://www.space.com/jupiter-impacts-observation-science …  where it is reported that two space objects slammed into Jupiter and were spotted by observers. Apparently, this is happening all the time but only the occasional one is spotted by earth  based observers. Another space rock crashing into Jupiter was recorded by Japanese sky watchers. However, the best known impact on Jupiter was the 19 fragments of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 back in 1994. The impact print was visible in the atmosphere of Jupiter for months – as a dark splotch in the clouds. Most fireballs disappear into the atmosphere of Jupiter and orbiting spacecraft fail to find anything to see a short while afterwards. These are fairly large lumps of material. From a metre to several metres in diameter, and even bigger. One theory is that Jupiter guards the inner solar system by attracting a lot of debris orbiting out there in space. When it comes to Centaur objects, very large comets in an orbit in the outer solar system, Jupiter is positioned to foil attempts to enter the inner solar system. Presumably this is why it attracted Shoemaker-Levy 9. Many comets are of course on a  trajectory that takes them into the inner solar system and around the Sun before heading back out. Those comets do not come close enough to Jupiter to be attracted  into its web, although it is thought that Comet Halley at one time came too close to Jupiter and this transformed its orbit, leading to the present regular 76 year cycle. How long ago that might have happened is speculation. There is in fact a lot about comets that astronomers do not understand – and a lot they do understand.

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