the planet jupiter (3d rendering,8k.This image elements furnished by NASA)


the planet jupiter (3d rendering,8k.This image elements furnished by NASA)

Photo by: Rainer Zapka / EyeEm

Rainer Zapka / EyeEm

Watch Out! Amateur Astronomer Watches as Jupiter Gets Whacked

Jupiter is the OG best friend in the solar system. It finds all the tiny little comets and asteroids heading for the vulnerable inner planets and takes one for the team, chewing up the dangerous rocks in its thick atmosphere. It happened again just recently, and this time an amateur astronomer caught it in the act.

September 23, 2021

It wasn’t an accident that Brazilian astronomer José Luis Pereira saw a rock strike Jupiter on the night of September 13th. He was participating in a citizen science project where amateur astronomers constantly take movies of the gas giant. When they think they see a strike, they process the video through a free software package developed by (professional) astronomers.

The astronomers are interested in just how often Jupiter gets smacked. And based on their work for the past decade, it seems that small rocks (both comets and asteroids) strike the king of planets every other year or so.

That’s great news for us. Our solar system is filled with countless bits of debris: asteroids, comets, meteoroids, and more. Most of those objects follow harmless orbits around the sun, keeping roughly the same position that they have for millions of years. But some have wicked hearts and devious minds, slipping out of stable orbits and sailing into the inner solar system.

Earth, too, has a relatively thick atmosphere, which soaks up most of the strikes we get. It’s estimated that about once a year a rock big enough to cause a nuclear bomb’s worth of energy hits us. We tend not to notice because a) the explosion usually happens in the upper atmosphere, and b) most of the Earth is uninhabited.

But that number would have been a lot worse without Jupiter. Its gigantic mass gives it a hefty gravitational pull, luring in anything around it. And it sits in the outer solar system, serving as a goalie that any inward-bound objects have to get through.

Oh and Jupiter? It doesn’t mind. It’s by far the largest planet in the solar system, with thousands of miles of thick atmosphere protecting it. Small rocks just fall apart and/or burn up in that atmosphere without causing serious damage. Even Shoemaker-Levy 9, a massive comet that broke apart and struck Jupiter in 1994, managed to leave a nasty scar that went away in just a few weeks.

It’s hard to tell just how big the rock was that Pereira spotted, or whether it was a comet or an asteroid. Whatever it was, it wasn’t all that huge, because it didn’t leave a long-lasting pockmark on Jupiter. But if that same rock were to hit Earth? Ouch.

Thanks for the solid, Jupiter.

Dive Deeper into the Cosmos

Paul M. Sutter

Paul M. Sutter is an astrophysicist at Stony Brook University and the Flatiron Institute, host of Ask a Spaceman and Space Radio, and author of How to Die in Space.

Next Up

Six Planets are Retrograde, What Does that Mean for You?

Spoiler alert: It's an optical illusion.

Why Pluto Isn’t a Planet, but (Maybe) Should Be

What, exactly, is a “planet”? For ancient astronomers it was pretty easy. When they stared up at the night sky, they saw a) the sun, b) the moon, c) a lot of fixed stars, d) a few wandering points of light. Those vagabonds were the planets. Indeed, our word planet comes from the Greek word for “wanderer”.

The First Exoplanet Found…Outside the Galaxy!

This new planet has had a pretty rough life.

Jupiter Makes Its Closest Approach to Earth in Nearly 60 Years

The last time Jupiter appeared this large and bright in the sky was in October 1963.

Meet WASP-127b, the Fluffiest Planet in the Galaxy

Take a planet with the mass of, say, Saturn. You know, pretty big, but not ridiculously big. Just…normal big.

The Best Planets are Rogue Planets

We can debate the status of objects in the solar system all day long, arguing if little Pluto is a planet or not. But to tell you the truth, any planet in any solar system got the short end of the stick. The real winners of the galactic game are the travelers, the roamers, the rogue planets.

Saving Earth from Killer Asteroids

Only about 40% of an estimated 25,000 near-Earth asteroids with the potential to destroy the planet have been detected. Scientist Dr. Ed Lu, along with his nonprofit B612 are working to create a way to detect the other 60%.

How Exoplanets Became the Next Big Thing in Astronomy

To date, we know of over 5,000 planets outside the solar system. And astronomers suspect that there may be *checks notes* around a trillion more in our galaxy alone. The search for exoplanets is one of the hottest topics in astronomy, with expensive telescopes and giant collaborations all searching for the holy grail of the 21st century: an Earth 2.0, a habitable world like our own.

Yet Another Exoplanet That You’ll Never Want to Visit

Ready for an exotic vacation? How about…really exotic? Tired of tropical beaches or snow-covered mountains? Let’s go…out of this world.

Why Mercury Matters

At first, the planet Mercury isn't much to look at. It has a surface only a mother could love, as desolate and empty as the Moon and pock-marked with crater after crater. But this planet has a secret, which has folks wanting to know more.

Related To: