Right Place - Right Time : A fireball hit Jupiter. And astronomers got it on video.

Ko Arimatsu, an astronomer at Kyoto University in Japan, received an intriguing email. An amateur astronomer in his country had spotted a bright flash in Jupiter's atmosphere.

Dr. Arimatsu, who runs an observation program to study the outer solar system using backyard astronomy equipment, put out a call for more information. Six more reports of the Aug 28 flash - which, according to Dr. Arimatsu, is one of the brightest ever recorded on the giant gas planet.- came from Japanese skywatchers.

Flashes like these are caused by asteroids or comets from the edges of our solar system that hit Jupiter's atmosphere.

'' Direct observation of these bodies is virtually impossible, even with advanced telescopes, '' Dr. Arimatsu wrote in an email.But Jupiter's gravity lures in these objects, which eventually slam into the planet, '' making it a unique and invaluable tool for studying them,'' he said.

Characterising these flashes is a crucial way to understand our solar system's history. They offer ''a glimpse of the violent processes that were happening in the early days of our solar system,'' said Leigh Fletcher, a planetary scientist at the University of Leicester in England. 

'' It's like seeing planetary evolution in action, '' he said.

Today, powerful impacts on Jupiter are more rare, but they do occur. In 1994, one comet whacked into Jupiter with so much force that it left a visible debris field. Astronomers saw another strong impact in 2000.

Most collisions with Jupiter, the solar system's fifth planet from the sun, are witnessed by amateur astronomers. [ Eight of the nine flashes seen on Jupiter since 2010 were reported by amateurs, according to Dr. Arimatsu.]

Typically they use a technique called lucky imaging, which takes a video of a portion of the sky at a high frame rate.

Those frames contain '' a treasure trove of data, '' Dr. Fletcher said, from which professional astronomers can deduce information about Jupiter's atmosphere, meteorology and storms. [ Katrina Miller ]


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