(It helps if you read this post’s title in the announcer’s voice from the old “Muppet Show” when he was introducing “Pigs … in … Space!”)
So since my work wife Marisa was asking, I thought I’d mention a few astronomical oddities that have been in the news lately!
First off, if you haven’t heard already, something really big hit Jupiter recently, creating a huge disruption near its southern pole. The picture here is from amateur Australian astronomer Anthony Wesley using a 14.5-inch telescope in Murrumbateman, Australia, aka “the land down under,” and as such, Jupiter’s “southern” hemisphere is at the top of the picture. He’s the person who first discovered this anomaly on Jupiter’s cloud-covered surface, and alerted astronomers around the globe to the event. From the article —
“I had seen the scars caused by fragments of Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 hitting Jupiter in 1994, so I knew what an impact looked like,” Wesley says. “After I’d convinced myself that this was real, I could hardly use the computer. My hands were shaking. It was quite unbelievable.”
He quickly emailed his photos to friends and colleagues around the world, and within hours telescopes great and small were turning toward Jupiter to photograph the aftermath of a powerful collision.
“We believe it was a comet or asteroid measuring perhaps a few hundred meters wide,” says Don Yeomans of NASA’s Near-Earth Object Office at JPL. “If something of similar size hit Earth—we’re talking about 2000 megatons of energy–there would be serious regional devastation or a tsunami if it hit the ocean.”
2,000 megatons of energy?!
Let’s think about that for a second.
A small asteroid — about 2 to 5 meters across — hit high above the Earth last October over the Sudan, creating an explosion equal to 1 kiloton of TNT. By comparison, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was equal to about 13 kilotons of TNT.
By comparison, the object that caused the Tunguska event — a dramatic explosion over a remote section of Russia about 100 years ago that completely and utterly flattened an area of 830 square miles with the force of about 10 to 15 megatons of TNT, or about 1,000 times the force of the Hiroshima bomb — is estimated to have “only” been about less than a few dozen meters across.
The “thing” that hit Jupiter was “a few hundred meters across” (say, about the size of a football field) and caused a debris cloud on Jupiter that was the size of Mars! If that thing was to strike Earth with the force of 2,000 MEGAtons, well … you wouldn’t be able to do the math before you, me and the entire planet were vaporized!
On the plus side, NASA has officially thought about what would happen if such a large body struck Earth, and subsequently has released the Natural Impact Hazard Interagancy Deliberate Planning Exercise After Action Report. The entire 107-page report is available, but let me save you some reading — if we get hit by any sort of large asteroid or comet, we’re frakked.
Still, despite being able to do the math, no one is exactly sure what — if anything — hit Jupiter in the first place.
If it’s any consolation, it’s believed that because Jupiter is so big, and has such strong gravitational pull, it’s a magnet for wayward celestial objects, and as such, has spared Earth from such impacts for billions of years. (Works for me!)
Ironically, however, a few days after the Jupiter event, an eerily similiar event occurred on Venus, with an amateur astronomer discovering an unusually bright spot in the Venetian atmosphere. From that article —
But just what caused the brightening is still a mystery. Theories have abounded, from a volcanic eruption to solar particles interacting with the planet’s atmosphere.
[Planetary scientist Sanjay Limaye of the University of Wisconsin-Madison] says the volcano explanation is unlikely, for several reasons: Volcanoes on Venus seem to be less likely to blow their tops in Mount St. Helens-type fashion, instead behaving more like the oozing lava factories of Hawaii, so their eruptions wouldn’t likely produce huge clouds of ash and steam. Also, it is unlikely that the explosions would have the power to push through to the other layers of Venus’ extremely dense atmosphere.
Limaye doesn’t completely rule out the possibility, however. “It’s possible, we just don’t know,” he said.
Another explanation is that a coronal mass ejection (an energetic plume of plasma from the sun’s corona) or the solar wind could have interacted with the clouds of Venus.
These “could cause something, we don’t know what,” Limaye said.
Yet another possibility is some internal change in Venus’ atmosphere that could alter cloud particles and make them more reflective (and therefore brighter as viewed from space).
“Clearly something in the cloud properties changed,” Limaye said.
Of course, the article concludes with Limaye suggesting exactly what caused the event “is anybody’s guess.” So for all they know, something large could’ve struck Venus as well!
Ah, space. Home of mysterious big things that crash into other mysterious big things … and devastate them. Yay!