Rogue asteroid, not comet, hit Jupiter last July

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Washington, June 4 (ANI): The mystery object that struck Jupiter on July 19, 2009, leaving a dark bruise the size of the Pacific Ocean, could have been a rogue asteroid, a new study using Hubble images has suggested.

Similar scars had been left behind during the course of a week in July 1994, when more than 20 pieces of Comet P/Shoemaker-Levy 9 (SL9) plunged into Jupiter's atmosphere.

The 2009 impact occurred during the same week, 15 years later.

Astronomers who compared Hubble images of both collisions say the culprit may have been an asteroid about 1,600 feet (500 meters) wide.

Leader of the Jupiter impact study Heidi Hammel, of the Space Science Institute in Boulder, Colo., said: "This solitary event caught us by surprise, and we can only see the aftermath of the impact, but fortunately we do have the 1994 Hubble observations that captured the full range of impact phenomena, including the nature of the objects from pre-impact observations."

In 2009 Hammel's team snapped images of the debris field with Hubble's recently installed Wide Field Camera 3 and newly repaired Advanced Camera for Surveys.

The analysis revealed key differences between the two collisions (in 1994 and 2009), providing clues to the 2009 event.

Astronomers saw a distinct halo around the 1994 impact sites in Hubble ultraviolet (UV) images, evidence of fine dust arising from a comet-fragment strike.

The UV images also showed a strong contrast between impact-generated debris and Jupiter's clouds.

Hubble ultraviolet images of the 2009 impact showed no halo and also revealed that the site's contrast faded rapidly.

Both clues suggest a lack of lightweight particles, providing circumstantial evidence for an impact by a solid asteroid rather than a dusty comet.

The elongated shape of the recent impact site also differs from the 1994 strike, indicating that the 2009 object descended from a shallower angle than the SL9 fragments.

The 2009 body also came from a different direction than the SL9 pieces.

Team member Agustin Sanchez-Lavega of the University of the Basque Country in Bilbao, Spain, and colleagues performed an analysis of possible orbits that the 2009 impacting body could have taken to collide with Jupiter.

Their work indicates the object probably came from the Hilda family of bodies, a secondary asteroid belt consisting of more than 1,100 asteroids orbiting near Jupiter.

The study by Hammel's team appears in The Astrophysical Journal Letters. (ANI)

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