Local astronomer says Jupiter impact 'rare and dramatic'

Published: Wednesday, March 30, 2016 @ 12:25 PM
Updated: Wednesday, March 30, 2016 @ 12:25 PM


            Local amateur astronomer Ron Whitehead has been taking images of the night sky since the early 1980s. CONTRIBUTED
Local amateur astronomer Ron Whitehead has been taking images of the night sky since the early 1980s. CONTRIBUTED

What are the odds that two amateur astrophotographers – one in Austria, the other in Ireland – both captured video of an object recently colliding into the planet Jupiter?

“The probability is astronomical,” said local amateur astronomer Ron Whitehead. A retired program director at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Whitehead has been into astrophotography since the early 1980s.

“To capture such a thing, you have be a diligent observer over and over and over again,” Whitehead said, "and you have to have a large enough telescope.”

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The March 17 extraterrestrial collision captured by Gerrit Kernbauer of Modling, Austria, and later confirmed by John McKeon of Dublin, Ireland, is significant in astronomy.

“It demonstrates that impacts do happen and have happened in our lifetime,” Whitehead said. “There have been other minor impacts reported, but this one was rare and dramatic.”

“In the history of humankind, only one (similar) event has been dramatically imaged – Shoemaker-Levy 9,” Whitehead said.

Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 broke apart and collided with Jupiter in July 1994. The collision was extensively covered in the media.

“Shoemaker-Levy 9 showed graphically what happens when a comet hits Jupiter,” Whitehead said. “In the early days of our solar system, the number of impacts were considerable. Most of the original material in the solar system was expelled or destroyed by collisions.”

Jupiter is the largest planet circling our sun, and errant objects, such as comets and asteroids, that come close to Jupiter's orbit can succumb to its gravitational pull on their way into the inner solar system. "We on Earth owe thanks to Jupiter for catching a fair share of things. How many, we have no way of really knowing," Whitehead said.

Whitehead is a member of the Miami Valley Astronomical Society. The group’s dark site is at John Bryan State Park, where Whitehead maintains his own small observatory.