Well, this is seriously quite cool. Reports are coming in that a number of amateur astronomers have spotted an asteroid or comet slamming into Jupiter. If confirmed, this would be one of only a handful of recorded impacts ever on the gas giant.
Details are few and far between at the moment. What we know so far, from videos published online, is that there was a rapid brightening on the limb of Jupiter, which likely came from an impact.
John McKeon, one of the astronomers, wrote on Reddit under the username bubbleweed: “Exact time was 00:18:45 UT [on March 17]. If anyone was shooting Jupiter at that time, I recommend looking back through your videos.”
McKeon’s video of the impact is above.
The video of the impact seems to show that it was rather large and bright, with a significant burst shooting into space as the asteroid hit the upper cloud layer. This heavily points to some sort of impact event.
A separate astronomer, Gerrit Kernbauer on YouTube, also captured the event. He wrote: “Thinking back to Shoemaker-Levy 9, my only explanation for this is an asteroid or comet that enters Jupiters [sic] high atmosphere and burned up/explode very fast.”
The video by Kernbauer is above
The Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 that he references is a very famous impact event on Jupiter back in 1994, when a comet that had broken up two years prior was observed slamming into Jupiter. The impact left marks on the gas giant, and some have suggested this latest impact may have similar residual markers in follow-up observations.
"Again, as with Shoemaker Levy 9 and other impact events, Jupiter is taking the brunt of the Solar System's wandering sentinels,” astronomer Nick Howes, formerly deputy director of the Kielder Observatory in Northumberland, told IFLScience. “A flash that size does indicate something quite sizable may have struck Jupiter's upper atmosphere though, and the fact that it was detected by amateur astronomers yet again shows just how valuable their work is."
The next step for this impact will be to, well, confirm that it actually was an impact. One way to do this will be to look for signs of the impact in the upper cloud deck of Jupiter, according to Howes. IFLScience has asked NASA for official confirmation, and this story will be updated when we hear anything.
(Update: Rob Landis, from NASA's Planetary Defense Coordination Office, told IFLScience there were no plans to follow-up the detection with telescopes like Hubble. However, he confirmed that it was "probably the sixth time this [an impact] has happened and been observed since July 1994.")
For now, though, those amateur astronomers can bask in the glory of maybe discovering one of only a handful of known impacts on Jupiter. There’s even a chance they’ll get to name it. May we suggest Asteroid McAsteroidface?