Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Astronomers Keep Eyes Peeled for Collisions' Effects

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Astronomers Keep Eyes Peeled for Collisions' Effects

Article excerpt

When the fireworks flare on the far side of Jupiter this afternoon, astronomers around the world will be straining for an indirect glimpse of the collision between a comet and the solar system's largest planet.

Scientists and amateur astronomers will be denied a direct look at the collision because the 21 or so fragments of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 are expected to hit the planet's night side, which faces away from Earth.

Instead, they will have to seek secondhand evidence of a once-in-a-lifetime celestial event: powerful ripples in the planet's thick atmosphere, disturbances in Jupiter's distinctive cloud patterns, bursts of interplanetary static caused by the impacts and even the momentary glow from the explosive flashes reflected on Jupiter's many moons.

No astronomer has ever had a chance to watch - even indirectly - when a comet slams into a planet, so professional and amateur observers are marshaling a global network of telescopes, airborne observatories and space probes throughout the solar system to capture hints of the collision.

The first piece of the fragmented comet is expected to hit Jupiter about 3 p.m. St. Louis time today, experts predict, with the second making an impact about seven hours later and the third just before 2 a.m. Sunday. Other chunks of the comet traveling at 132,000 mph are expected to rain on Jupiter through Friday.

Even if the weather cooperates and the night sky is clear, viewing throughout North America will be limited because most of the impacts will occur during daylight or after Jupiter has set.

To get the best view from Earth, astronomers from around the world have gathered at the Sutherland Observatory in South Africa, in the dry winter air of the semidesert Karoo region, 170 miles northeast of Cape Town.

"The best views are in the Southern Hemisphere because Jupiter is south of the celestial equator, which is the projection of Earth's equator into the sky," said David Laney, an astronomer who is based at Cape Town's South African Astronomical Observatory.

Although the actual impact will take place on Jupiter's dark side, Jupiter spins rapidly - its day takes just 10 hours - and the impact zone will rotate into view and be visible from Earth for about five hours after each hit. …

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