An apparent meteor struck Jupiter yesterday, creating an explosion so massive that amateur astronomers looking through their telescopes her on Earth were able to see it. Amateur astrophotographer George Hall of Dallas, Texas happened to have a camera and telescope pointed at the planet at the time, and managed to snag some video footage of the fireball, which he soon uploaded to his Flickr account.
The impact was first observed by amateur astronomer Dan Peterson of Racine, Wisconsin, who was gazing at Jupiter through his telescope when he saw “a bright flash that lasted only 1.5 – 2 seconds.” After Peterson shared what he had witnessed on an online astronomy forum, Hall came across the post and realized that he might have captured it on video. He went through the footage he captured that morning, and sure enough, there was the impact.
This whole story is a visual illustration of an awesome fact about our solar system: that Jupiter acts as a “cosmic vacuum cleaner”, protecting our planet from impacts that could be devastating. EarthSky writes,
Jupiter’s gravity also protects us. Long-period comets enter the solar system from its outer reaches. Jupiter’s gravity slings most of these fast-moving ice balls out of the solar system before they can get close to Earth. So long-period comets are thought to strike Earth only about every 30 million years. Without Jupiter nearby, long-period comets would collide with our planet up to 1000 times more frequently.
To understand how devastating this kind of impact would be on Earth, consider this: a similar strike in 2009 caused a bruise on the face of Jupiter the size of the Pacific Ocean.