Jupiter Catastrophe: Meteor Hit Is Seen from Earth, but Jupiter Didn’t Flinch

Jupiter cartoon by Dan Rattiner
Cartoon by Dan Rattiner

Something hit Jupiter, the solar system’s largest planet, last week. Nobody knows exactly what it was because Jupiter is so far away, but the amateur astronomer in Texas who discovered the hit, a man named Ethan Chappel, thinks it was a meteor. He’d kept his video surveillance telescope on all night by mistake and he sat down to watch it in the morning, and there it was, at seven minutes past midnight, Eastern Standard Time on August 7.

You can see it for yourself on YouTube (below). Scientists have posted it. The hit lasted about two and a half seconds, and it happened near Jupiter’s underbelly. Could have missed but didn’t.

“Looking at the flash, the size of the explosion seems small,” wrote a reporter in Science Gizmodo, explaining what you see. “But it’s important to remember that Jupiter is the largest planet in the solar system.”

Very, very much larger than the Earth. The Earth is 7,918 miles in diameter. Jupiter is 88,881 miles in diameter. Remember when it was said that Superstorm Sandy could be seen from the moon if people were on the moon? Well, for this thing to have been seen from Earth when Jupiter is not only so large but also so far, far away, it seems to suggest that what hit it might have been as large as the Earth.

But no. I took a ruler to my computer screen showing the hit and made some measurements. What hit it is about the size of North America. So, not to worry. Jupiter might have been staggered for a moment, but it recovered and is back on course, going around the sun, and all is well.

This is not to say that something the size of North America couldn’t hit the Earth square like this. It’s all pretty random. Although it’s less likely, what hits Jupiter on a particular day could have hit the Earth on that day. It would hit with a loud smack. We’d have two North Americas. The Earth would shiver and then fall to the uh, earth, probably.

Mathematically, it’s possible to consider the odds of a North America smacking the Earth instead of Jupiter.

Jupiter is 49 million miles from the sun. Earth is 94 million miles from the sun. If the sun, the Earth and Jupiter made a straight line, which on very rare occasion they do, it’s easy to see that Jupiter is five times farther away than we are. Those are pretty shockingly bad odds, it seems, with one smack in five hitting the Earth if the other four hit Jupiter,

But you would need to factor in other things, such as the three-dimensionality of the solar system as it glides through space and the rarety of a Jupiter, Earth and sun lineup. You’d see the odds lengthen to maybe 1 in 200 billion.


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