Jupiter: Scientists explain the concept of 'Junocam'

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Jupiter plays a huge part in protecting all the other planets, especially the four inner rocky bodies – Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars – from deadly space rocks. Only the Sun has a greater gravitational pull than Jupiter in the solar system. The gas giant has such a strong gravitational pull that it helps to keep the asteroid belt – located between Mars and Jupiter– in place so space rocks are not flying around the solar system.

Its immense gravity also pulls in loose comets, meteors and asteroids as they pass by.

However, spotting a space rock colliding with Jupiter is extremely hard.

Over the last decade, only six impacts have been seen on Jupiter as an impact can last just milliseconds.

Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) astronomer Dr Rohini Giles, lead author of a new study, said: “Jupiter undergoes a huge number of impacts per year, much more than the Earth, so impacts themselves are not rare.

“However, they are so short-lived that it is relatively unusual to see them. Only larger impacts can be seen from Earth, and you have to be lucky to be pointing a telescope at Jupiter at exactly the right time.

“In the last decade, amateur astronomers have managed to capture six impacts on Jupiter.”

However, last Spring, NASA’s Juno spacecraft spotted a bright flash in the clouds of Jupiter.

Using the SwRI-led instrument, Ultraviolet Spectrograph (UVS), on Juno, the team were initially studying auroras on Jupiter.

Juno completes an orbit of Jupiter – which is 11 times larger than Earth – every 53 days, so it only sees a small section of the planet for a matter of seconds.

But on April 10, 2020, it was in the right place at the right time to spot a bright flash.

Dr Giles said: “This observation is from a tiny snapshot in time – Juno is a spinning spacecraft, and our instrument observed that point on the planet for just 17 milliseconds, and we don’t know what happened to the bright flash outside of that time frame.

“But we do know that we didn’t see it on an earlier spin or a later spin, so it must have been pretty short-lived.”

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The team initially thought the blast was from lightning in the upper atmosphere, but further analysis revealed it to be a meteor, or bolide, which is an ultra-bright fireball, which hit the planet.

Dr Giles continued: “The flash duration and spectral shape match up well with what we expect from an impact.

“This bright flash stood out in the data, as it had very different spectral characteristics than the UV emissions from the Jupiter’s auroras.

“From the UV spectrum, we can see that the emission came from blackbody with a temperature of 9600 Kelvin, located at an altitude of 140 miles above the planet’s cloud tops.

“By looking at the brightness of the bright flash, we estimate that it was caused by an impactor with a mass of 550 to 3,300 pounds.”

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