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Repaired Hubble zooms in on Jupiter impact

Posted: July 27, 2009

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Taking time-out from calibration tests, the newly refurbished Hubble Space Telescope turned to face the drama unfolding in Jupiter's atmosphere following its scrap with an impacting asteroid or comet.

This visible light image taken by Hubble is the sharpest view of the impact site to date. Image: NASA, ESA and H. Hammel (Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colorado) and the Jupiter Comet Impact Team.

The dark spot was first discovered on Jupiter by Australian observer Anthony Wesley on 19 July, exactly fifteen years after fragments of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 spectacularly crashed into the giant planet. Follow up images from the ground confirmed the scar as the likely result of a collision of a comet or asteroid.

On 23 July NASA scientists interrupted the checkout and calibration phase of the recently refurbished Hubble observatory to snap high resolution images of the impact site.

"Because we believe this magnitude of impact is rare, we are very fortunate to see it with Hubble," says Amy Simon-Miller of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. "Details seen in the Hubble view shows a lumpiness to the debris plume caused by turbulence in Jupiter's atmosphere."

Closeup of the new dark spot as seen on 23 July. Image: NASA, ESA and H. Hammel (Space Science Institute, Boulder, Colorado) and the Jupiter Comet Impact Team.

The so-called impact 'scar' is changing in morphology on a daily basis. By combining the Hubble images with ground-based data at other wavelengths, scientists will be given a comprehensive view of exactly what is happening to the impact debris as it is consumed and dispersed in the Jovian atmosphere.

The new Hubble images also confirm that the May servicing visit by space shuttle astronauts was a big success, during which Hubble's vision was upgraded with the Wide Field Camera 3 (WFC3). "This is just one example of what Hubble’s new, state-of-the-art camera can do, thanks to the hard work of the astronauts and the entire Hubble team", says Ed Weiler, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. "Fortunately, the best is yet to come!"

Simon-Miller estimates the size of the impacter to be on the order of two hundred metres wide, equivalent to the length of at least two football fields, and many times larger than the object that exploded over the Tunguska region of Siberia in 1908.

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