An amateur astronomer caught something spectacular with a backyard telescope Wednesday when he recorded a bright flash on the surface of Jupiter. The biggest planet in the solar system routinely delivers stunning pictures, like those snapped by NASA's Juno spacecraft, but the unexpected flash has astronomers excited at the possibility of a meteor impact.
Ethan Chappel pointed his telescope at the gas giant planet at just the right time, capturing the white spot seen on the lower left side of the planet in the above images on Aug. 7.
While it has yet to be confirmed by a second observer, it looks like a large asteroid crashing into the gas giant planet. The flash is brief and quickly fades away, boosting the idea that it was likely caused by an impact.
"Another impact on Jupiter today!" astronomer Dr. Heidi B. Hammel wrote on Twitter. "A bolide (meteor) and not likely to leave dark debris like SL9 did 25 years ago."
SL9 is Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, which famously impacted Jupiter in 1994. Hammel led the team that used the Hubble Space Telescope to study the impact and how the planet's gassy atmosphere responded.
Something remarkable to consider is that the apparent size of the flash is almost the size of Earth, which is tiny next to the giant gas planet. For reference, about three Earths could fit inside Jupiter's Great Red Spot, which is also visible.
Of course, this doesn't mean that whatever hit Jupiter was the size of a planet, just that the collision looks to have released a lot of explosive energy. Sky and Telescope's Bob King says, if confirmed, this would be the seventh recorded impact of Jupiter since Shoemaker-Levy and the first in over two years.
Better to keep all that asteroid traffic directed in the outer solar system, we've had enough space rock scares here in the past month.