Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Serendipity Counts for a Lot of Astronomy Discoveries: Comet Impact on Jupiter Seen by Australian Amateur Astronomer

Space is a big place and we only have the sky to peek into it. Even with our computer-guided telescopes, we cannot always be at the right place at the right time to see things happen. Fortunately, with a little serendipity and patience, sometimes, your sky viewing will pay off and you, the amateur, or casual star gazer get to make discoveries that will amaze even our friends at NASA.

Take for example, what happened on July 19, 2009 at the Murrumbateman (north of Canberra) home of Australian amateur astronomer and computer programmer, Anthony Wesley (44). He was observing Jupiter in his backyard with his 14.5-inch reflecting telescope when he saw what appeared to be a dark spot on Jupiter. He didn't immediately notice it, taking 30 minutes before he realized it was something else as it rotated for a better view and atmospheric conditions improved.

Wesley described the spot as a "truly black spot in all channels"and initially thought it was a dark polar storm. NASA JPL scientist Glenn Orton confirmed that the spot was a comet impact which caused underlying gases to well up and be seen distinctly in reverse in the infrared photograph above taken by the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility in Hawaii. He says they are extremely lucky to have an impact site at the right place at the right time as Jupiter rotates it more into view. As of this writing, they expect to observe how the spot changes in the next few days.

So, take the hint. If you are always stargazing and paying close attention to bodies like Jupiter (where things are easier to "spot" - pardon the pun), then you may just get serendipitous and make the discovery of the year! Note that in 2006, Filipino astronomer Christopher Go was also at the right place and time when he observed the Oval BA spot or Red Spot Jr. (left; to the left of the Great Red Spot) on Jupiter change shade.

In 1994, when the Shoemaker-Levy fragments crashed into Jupiter, similar black impact spots were made which were clearly visible using my 3-inch reflector. Of course, I already knew they were there, but remember that there's always the chance of spotting something new. Even a small telescope like that can give you astonishing results!

Read about the discovery and see the extraordinary amateur pictures of the impact from Anthony Wesley's website: www.acquerra.com.au/astro

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