Video observation of the June 2010 impact in Jupiter

A bright flash on Jupiter in 2010 marks a hit from a celestial visitor, perhaps a comet. Credit: Anthony Wesley

Planetary science

Jupiter takes an annual pummelling from the Solar System

Flashes of light seen on the giant planet hint at frequent impacts by small objects.

Jupiter is being walloped by as many as 65 meteorite impacts each year.

Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9’s dramatic dive into the giant planet in 1994 drew headlines, but smaller collisions are frequent. In the past eight years, amateur astronomers have detected five such impacts by observing the flashes of light emitted when objects hit Jupiter’s atmosphere.

Analysis of videos of those flashes suggests that 10–65 small objects slam into Jupiter annually, says a group of professional and amateur astronomers led by Ricardo Hueso at the University of the Basque Country in Bilbao, Spain. These objects range from about 5 metres wide to the size of the asteroid that exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, in 2013, which was around 20 metres wide.

The planet’s travels along its orbit are gradually making it more visible to astronomers in Earth’s Northern Hemisphere, where there are more observers than in the Southern Hemisphere. As a result, more impacts to Jupiter might soon be spotted. A big enough collision might leave behind a debris field visible through large telescopes.