Was it a comet or an asteroid? Scientists are debating that question as they continue to pore over Hubble Space Telescope imaging and spectroscopic data gleaned in the wake of the spectacular July 1994 bombardment of Jupiter by comet P/Shoemaker-Levy 9. Their initial findings, combined with results from other space-borne and ground-based telescopes, shed new light on Jupiter's atmospheric winds, its immense magnetic field, the mysterious dark debris from the impacts, and the composition of the doomed comet itself.
HST's high resolution images show that the nuclei, the largest of which were probably a few kilometers across, did not break up catastrophically before plunging into Jupiter's atmosphere. This reinforces the notion that the atmospheric explosions were produced by solid, massive impacting bodies. HST's resolution also showed that the nuclei were releasing dust all along the path toward Jupiter, as would be expected from a comet. This was evident in the persistence of spherical clouds of dust surrounding each nucleus throughout most of the comet's journey. About a week before impact, these dust clouds were stretched out along the path of the comet's motion by Jupiter's increasingly strong gravity.
Hubble's ultraviolet observations show the motion of very fine impact debris particles now suspended high in Jupiter's atmosphere. The debris eventually will diffuse down to lower altitudes. This provides the first information ever obtained about Jupiter's high altitude wind patterns. Hubble gives astronomers a "three dimensional" perspective showing the wind patterns at high altitudes and how they differ from those at the visible cloudtop level. At lower altitudes, the impact debris follows east-west winds driven by sunlight and Jupiter's own internal heat. By contrast, winds in the high Jovian stratosphere move primarily from the poles toward the equator because they are driven mainly by auroral heating from high energy particles.
Hubble's Faint Object Spectrograph (FOS) recorded dramatic changes at the magnetosphere crossing that provided a rare opportunity to gather more clues on the comet's true composition. During a two-minute period on July 14, HST detected strong emissions from ionized magnesium (Mg II), an important component of both comet dust and asteroids. However, if the nuclei were ice-laden - as expected of a comet nucleus - astronomers expected to detect the hydroxyl radical (OH). Hubble did not see OH, casting some doubt on the cometary nature of comet P/Shoemaker-Levy 9. Eighteen minutes after comet P/Shoemaker- Levy 9 displayed the flare-up in Mg II emissions, there was also a dramatic change in the light reflected from the dust particles in the comet.
Aurorae, glowing gases that create the northern and southern lights, are common on Jupiter because energetic charged particles needed to excite the gases are always trapped in Jupiter's magnetosphere. However, this new feature seen by Hubble was unusual because it was temporarily as bright or brighter than the normal aurora, short-lived, and outside the area where Jovian aurorae are normally found. Astronomers believe the K impact created an electromagnetic disturbance that traveled along magnetic field lines into the radiation belts. This scattered charged particles, which normally exist in the radiation belts, into Jupiter's upper atmosphere.
X-ray images taken with the ROSAT satellite further bolster the link to the K impact. They reveal unexpectedly bright X-ray emissions that were brightest near the time of the K impact, and then faded.
The Space Telescope Science Institute is operated by the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy, Inc. (AURA) for NASA, under contract with the Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. The Hubble Space Telescope is a project of international cooperation between NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA).
Donald Savage Headquarters, Washington, D.C. September 29, 1994 (Phone: 202/358-1547) Jim Elliott Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. (Phone: 301/286-6256) Ray Villard Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore, Md. (Phone: 410/338-4514) RELEASE: 94-161
Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9