Hubble’s greatest discoveries: how planetary collisions work

Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9’s impact on Jupiter was captured by the Hubble Space Telescope.

Hubble's greatest discoveries: how planetary collisions work © Getty Images
Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9’s impact (dark spots) could be seen on Jupiter © Getty Images

On 16 July 1994, telescopic eyes were turned on Jupiter as the first of 21 fragments of the broken-up comet, Shoemaker-Levy 9, crashed into the planet. Blotches scarred the atmosphere for a month before fading away.

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Hubble Space Telescope observations provided a wealth of information about Jupiter’s atmosphere.

“Obvious waves emanated from the largest impacts, like ripples in a pond. From this, we could make deductions about the deep atmosphere and water below the clouds,” explains Dr Amy Simon, senior scientist for planetary atmospheres research at NASA Goddard.

While ground-based observatories were also involved, Hubble was the only one that could look across an entire range of wavelengths, irrespective of the time of day or weather conditions. Ultraviolet was particularly important for imaging dust and aerosols whipped up by the impacts.

“Hubble observed leftover debris and molecules high in the atmosphere for months, and even years, afterwards,” says Dr Simon.

Comet P/Shoemaker-Levy 9, taken by Hubble Space Telescope's Planetary Camera-2 in wide-field mode © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
Comet P/Shoemaker-Levy 9, taken by Hubble Space Telescope’s Planetary Camera-2 in wide-field mode © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

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