As technology improves, many fields of scientific study are becoming more and more available to everyday citizens. There's even a name for it: citizen science!
This makes sense given that today's smartphones are vastly more powerful than either the best home computers or the average camera of the 1980s. We just can do more and observe more, more easily than ever before.
Nowhere is this truer than in astronomy. Sure, the smartphone in your pocket is no deep space telescope, but access to impressive skywatching gear has never been greater. Amateur astronomers are racking up all sorts of intriguing discoveries.
A great example of this is a recent Jupiter impact that was caught on video by several amateur astronomers, including ones in France, Germany, and Brazil. Yes, impact! Something very large crashed into the surface of the gas giant, creating a bright, brief flash of light. Crash, boom!
A bright surprise
Like a lot of the best discoveries, this one happened by accident.
The impact occurred on September 13 at 22:39 UT (Universal Time, which is the same time zone as the United Kingdom). The astronomers were observing the shadow on the planet of one of Jupiter's largest moons, Io. Then suddenly out of nowhere—BLAST!—a flash appeared on the left side of the planet!
Astronomers excitedly exchanged notes—Did you see that, too?—and posted images online like this one.
Light on at Jupiter! Anyone home? This bright impact flash was spotted yesterday on the giant planet by astronomer José Luis Pereira.
Not a lot of info on the impacting object yet but its likely to be large and/or fast!
— ESA Operations (@esaoperations) September 14, 2021
On the right near Jupiter's equator, you can see the shadow of Io. While on the left is that bright splash of light. This is only the eighth time since 1994 that astronomers have captured such a sight. So cool!
What was it, exactly?
Though observers are sure that something collided with Jupiter, they don't know exactly what it was yet. It can take a couple years of research and combing through data to figure out the size and speed of the object as it hammered into the planet's massive atmosphere.
But experts do think that this sort of thing happens quite a bit. Maybe even as often as 60 times a year! It's not that surprising when you think about Jupiter's immense gravity and just how close it is to a very large asteroid belt.
But actually seeing a Jupiter impact is a whole other story. A person has to be looking at the right time, it needs to be night time wherever the astronomer is, it needs to happen on the side of the planet that they can see ... basically, you need to get lucky! So we're grateful that fortune was on the side of these dedicated amateur astronomers. Here's a video of the event that was taken by four of them in France—thanks Thibaut Humbert, Stéphane Barré, Alexis Desmougin, and Didier Walliang!