"For the first time in my life I saw the horizon as a curved line. It was accentuated by a thin seam of dark blue light - our atmosphere. Obviously this was not the ocean of air I had been told it was so many times in my life. I was terrified by its fragile appearance."
-- German astronaut Ulf Merbold
I was recently reminded of the above quote when reports started filtering in last week about a possible impact on Jupiter. An amateur astronomer in Australia was observing Jupiter when he noticed an unusual black marking near the planet's South Pole. The dark gash looked strikingly similar to the impact scar created exactly 15 years earlier when Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 crashed into Jupiter. Subsequent observations by professional astronomers with world-class telescopes confirmed that an object had hit Jupiter.
Earthlings are fortunate to have dodged the comet or meteor that struck Jupiter. In the photo taken by the Hubble Space Telescope three days after the impact, the gash in Jupiter's atmosphere is twice the length of the United States. Observers with decent-sized telescopes and high magnification have been able to catch a glimpse of the impact for themselves as it expands in size. But Jupiter's churning atmosphere is sure to quickly heal the gash, returning the planet to its swirling cream and orange appearance.
Jupiter rises in the east about an hour after sunset. The largest planet is up all night in August, reaching opposition (opposite the sun in our sky) on the 14th. Follow the link for an overview of August's Observing Highlights, including a summer favorite, the Perseid Meteor Shower.
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Kelly Kizer Whitt loves clean, clear, and dark skies. Kelly studied English and Astronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and worked for Astronomy magazine. She is currently the Feature Writer for Astronomy and Space at Suite101.com. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/Astronomommy.