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Sept. 9, 2010: In a paper published today in the Astrophysical Journal Letters, a group of professional and amateur astronomers announced that Jupiter is getting hit surprisingly often by small asteroids, lighting up the giant planet's atmosphere with frequent fireballs.
"Jupiter is a big gravitational vacuum cleaner," says co-author and JPL astronomer Glenn Orton. "It is clear now that relatively small objects left over from the formation of the solar system 4.5 billion years ago still hit Jupiter frequently."
The impacts are bright enough to see through backyard telescopes on Earth. Indeed, amateur astronomers were the first to detect them, recording two fireballs in 2010 alone—one on June 3rd and another on August 20th.
The object that caused the June 3 fireball was 30 to 40 feet wide (8 to 13 meters). The object is comparable in size to the asteroid 2010 RF12 that flew by Earth Wednesday, and slightly larger than the asteroid 2008 TC3, which burned up above Sudan two years ago.
The energy released by the June 3 fireball as it collided with Jupiter's atmosphere was between a fifth and a tenth of the 1908 Tunguska event on Earth, which knocked over tens of millions of trees in a remote part of Russia.
Analysis is continuing on the Aug. 20 fireball, but scientists said it was comparable to the June 3 object.