Jupiter may be the biggest planet, but it sure seems to get picked on. On March 17, amateur astronomer Gerrit Kernbauer of Mödling, Austria, a small town just south of Vienna, was filming Jupiter through his 7.8-inch (200mm) telescope. Ten days later he returned to process the videos and discovered a bright flash of light at Jupiter’s limb.
The flash certainly looks genuine, plus we know this has happened at Jupiter before. Kernbauer mentions the first-ever confirmed reported comet impact that occurred in July 1994.
“It’s more likely to be an asteroid simply because there are more of them,” Paul Chodas, head the agency’s Near-Earth Object Program at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, told the Space.com regarding March 2016’s newest event.
Whatever it was, multiple witnesses viewed the collision, including an amateur astronomer based in Ireland who was just hoping to create a great time-lapse video.
The 1994 Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, shattered to pieces from strong tidal forces when it passed extremely close to the planet in 1992, returned two years later to collide with Jupiter — one fragment at a time. Twenty-one separate fragments pelted the planet, leaving big, dark blotches in the cloud tops easily seen in small telescopes at the time.
Not long after Kernbauer got the word out in 1994, a second video came to light taken by John McKeon from near Dublin, Ireland using his 11-inch (28 cm) telescope. And get this. Both videos were taken in the same time frame, making it likely they captured a genuine impact.
With the advent of cheap video cameras, amateurs have kept a close eye on the planet, hoping to catch sight of more impacts. Two factors make Jupiter a great place to look for asteroid / comet collisions.
First, the planet’s strong gravitational influence is able to draw in more comets and asteroids than smaller planets. Second, its powerful gravity causes small objects to accelerate faster, increasing their impact energy.
On July 19, 2009, Australian amateur Anthony Wesley was the first to record a brand new dark scar near Jupiter’s south pole using a low-light video camera on his telescope.
Although no one saw or filmed the impact itself, there was no question that the brand new spot was evidence of the aftermath: NASA’s Infrared Telescope Facility at Mauna Kea picked up a bright spot at the location in infrared light. These were also followed by other videotaped impact events on Jupiter during the following years.
Sky&Telescope Magazine reported that the current month’s impact on Jupiter was the fourth of its kind over the last decade.