On this day July 16, 1994
Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 collides with Jupiter, impacts continue until July 22nd, providing the first direct observation of an extraterrestrial collision of solar system objects. This generated a large amount of coverage in the popular media, and SL9 was closely observed by astronomers worldwide. The collision provided new information about Jupiter and highlighted its role in reducing space debris in the inner solar system.
The discovery that the comet was likely to collide with Jupiter caused great excitement within the astronomical community and beyond, as astronomers had never before seen two significant solar system bodies collide. Intense studies of the comet were undertaken, and as its orbit became more accurately established, the possibility of a collision became a certainty. The collision would provide a unique opportunity for scientists to look inside Jupiter’s atmosphere, as the collisions were expected to cause eruptions of material from the layers normally hidden beneath the clouds.
Astronomers estimated that the visible fragments of SL9 ranged in size from a few hundred metres to at most a couple of kilometres across, suggesting that the original comet may have had a nucleus up to 5 km (3.1 mi) across – somewhat larger than Comet Hyakutake, which became very bright when it passed close to the Earth in 1996. One of the great debates in advance of the impact was whether the effects of the impact of such small bodies would be noticeable from Earth, apart from a flash as they disintegrated like giant meteors.
Other suggested effects of the impacts were seismic waves travelling across the planet, an increase in stratospheric haze on the planet due to dust from the impacts, and an increase in the mass of the Jovian ring system. However, given that observing such a collision was completely unprecedented, astronomers were cautious with their predictions of what the event might reveal.
The first impact occurred at 20:13 UTC on July 16, 1994, when fragment A of the nucleus slammed into Jupiter’s southern hemisphere at a speed of about 60 km/s. Instruments on Galileo detected a fireball which reached a peak temperature of about 24,000 K, compared to the typical Jovian cloudtop temperature of about 130 K, before expanding and cooling rapidly to about 1500 K after 40 s. The plume from the fireball quickly reached a height of over 3,000 km.
A few minutes after the impact fireball was detected, Galileo measured renewed heating, probably due to ejected material falling back onto the planet. Earth-based observers detected the fireball rising over the limb of the planet shortly after the initial impact.
Astronomers had expected to see the fireballs from the impacts, but did not have any idea in advance how visible the atmospheric effects of the impacts would be from Earth. Observers soon saw a huge dark spot after the first impact. The spot was visible even in very small telescopes, and was about 6,000 km (3,700 mi) (one Earth radius) across. This and subsequent dark spots were thought to have been caused by debris from the impacts, and were markedly asymmetric, forming crescent shapes in front of the direction of impact.
Over the next 6 days, 21 distinct impacts were observed, with the largest coming on July 18 at 07:33 UTC when fragment G struck Jupiter. This impact created a giant dark spot over 12,000 km across, and was estimated to have released an energy equivalent to 6,000,000 megatons of TNT (600 times the world’s nuclear arsenal). Two impacts 12 hours apart on July 19 created impact marks of similar size to that caused by fragment G, and impacts continued until July 22, when fragment W struck the planet.