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Archive for Sunday, July 10, 1994

ASTRONOMERS READY FOR COMET COLLISION

July 10, 1994

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A KU researcher and graduate students will be studying effects of pieces of a comet striking the solar system's largest planet.

Fragments of a comet traveling at 130,000 mph soon will slam into the planet Jupiter, creating catastrophic explosions bigger than the largest nuclear bombs.

Unfortunately, most people on Earth -- even amateur astronomy buffs with telescopes -- won't be able to see the event.

The fragments, from Comet Shoemaker-Levy-9, will begin hitting Jupiter Saturday.

They will continue to periodically pound the planet through July 22, in what will be a rare and spectacular event for astronomers.

"If this happened to Earth, we'd be in big trouble," said Thomas Cravens, Kansas University professor of physics and astronomy.

"But what makes this so interesting is not only what it will teach us about Jupiter, but also it could give us insight on similar events that we know have happened on Earth."

Cravens and a few graduate students will be studying the atmospheric effects of the comet fragments hitting the gaseous planet, which is 11 times the size of Earth and five times farther from the sun.

The fragments were created when the comet passed near Jupiter in 1992 and was broken into pieces by gravitational forces, Cravens said.

Scientists are unsure about the size of the fragments; they could be 1/2 kilometer to 5 kilometers -- more than 3 miles -- in diameter .

"If it's a big fragment it will make a bigger impact and the results will be more spectacular," Cravens said.

The first fragment will strike Jupiter during the day here and won't be visible. The second impact will be Saturday night.

Even at night, scientists won't be able to view the impacts because they will occur on the part of Jupiter facing away from Earth.

But they should be able to see the effects about 10 minutes after each impact, as Jupiter rotates and the sites come into view from Earth.

Also, the Galileo and Voyager 2 spacecraft will be in position to record the event. Pictures from the spacecraft won't be available for several months, however.

The visible, post-impact effects here could including possible plumes, similar to mushroom-shaped clouds that are formed in nuclear explosions. But those probably only will be seen by professional astronomers with large telescopes, Cravens said.

"People with telescopes may be able to see something, but you have to know what to look for," he said.

Cravens and his students have predicted that ions in Jupiter's upper atmosphere will change significantly after the impacts. They will know if they are right later this summer, when the event can be analyzed with special equipment.

But the phenomena, which happens once every few thousand years, will create years of research, Cravens said.

He added that a similar event may have occurred 65 million years ago on Earth. That's when, some scientists believe, a large comet struck near the Yucatan Peninsula, changing the climate and leading to the extinction of dinosaurs.

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