By Christine Verges
Arizona Summer Wildcat
Shoemaker-Levy 9, the ninth comet discovered by David Levy and Eugene and Carolyn Shoemaker, is scheduled to impact with Jupiter this Saturday, traveling at 37 miles per second.
For observers on Earth, Shoemaker-Levy 9 is the making of history, as it is the first time astronomers have been aware of a collision beforehand and able to study the before- and after-effects.
The only direct view of the comet, which is nothing more than a large, dirty, snowball of rock, ice and other frozen gases followed by long, trailing tails of debris, will be from the Galileo spacecraft.
Unfortunately, it may take months for the spacecraft to transmit its images back to earth for processing.
It is possible that as the comet plows into the Jovian atmosphere, it might do absolutely nothing. Or, the penetration may create a shock wave that will result in a brilliant flash of light that can be seen from Earth.
It is also possible that the comet will descend into the atmosphere and detonate, creating a gaseous explosion which could be seen from Earth. Or, the comet might simply disintegrate when it reaches the Jovian atmosphere, resulting in a spectacular meteor shower to view from Earth.
But Tucson's short and sometimes cloudy nights, combined with a location too far north and a longitude that is, in layman's terms, just plain wrong, make viewing of the comet's crash into Jupiter less than ideal.
For that reason, two graduate students from the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory will use the UA's 61-inch telescope on Mt. Bigelow in the Santa Catalina Mountains over the weekend to image the faint pieces of the comet just before it collides with Jupiter.
Michael Hicks and Will Grundy hope to detect pieces of the comet which may have been too close together to detect before now. The planetary camera they will use will detect images from the blue part of the visible spectrum to the near-infrared region.
Hicks and Grundy will then transfer the images onto a computer screen for viewing.
From June 15-22, the duo will use a spectrograph along with the 61-inch telescope to view the comet's impact with Jupiter. Hicks and Grundy plan to study the impact of the comet dust within Jupiter's magnetic field, looking for possible new chemicals that may form as a reaction.
Amateur astronomers are encouraged to familiarize themselves with the features and cloud formations of Jupiter beforehand, with the hopes of noting changes and differences afterward. Ideally, many embrace the hope of seeing a flash of light created by the explosion during the impact.
This Saturday, The Tucson Amateur Astronomy Association and Flandrau Planetarium will offer telescopes for viewing from the UA. For more information, call 621-4515.
Kitt Peak Observatory will also offer telescopes for viewers. Reservations are recommended. For more information, call 322-3426. Read Next Article