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A Cosmic Crash

NASA Space Place

Artist's rendering of cosmic collision involving two objects whose combined mass was at least twice that of our Moon. Discovered using the Spitzer Space Telescope in the planetary system of a star called HD 172555 100 light-years away.
Click image for larger view.
by Patrick Barry and Dr. Tony Phillips

Two small planets hurtle toward each other at 22,000 miles per hour. They're on a collision course. With unimaginable force, they smash into each other in a flash of light, blasting streams of molten rock far out into space.

This cataclysmic scene has happened countless times in countless solar systems. In fact, scientists think that such collisions could have created Earth's moon, tilted Uranus on its side, set Venus spinning backward, and sheared the crust off Mercury.

But witnessing such a short-lived collision while pointing your telescope in just the right direction would be a tremendous stroke of luck. Well, astronomers using NASA's Spitzer space telescope recently got lucky.

“It's unusual to catch such a collision in the act, that's for sure,” said Geoffrey Bryden, A cosmic Crashspitzer_an astronomer specializing in extrasolar planet formation at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a member of the science team that made the discovery.

When Bryden and his colleagues pointed Spitzer at a star 100 light-years away called HD 172555, they noticed something strange. Patterns in the spectrum of light coming from nearby the star showed distinctive signs of silicon monoxide gas — huge amounts of it — as well as a kind of volcanic rock called tektite.

It was like discovering the wreckage from a cosmic car crash. The silicon monoxide was produced as the high-speed collision literally vaporized huge volumes of rock, which is made largely of silicon and oxygen. The impact also blasted molten lava far out into space, where it later cooled to form chunks of tektite.

Based on the amount of silicon monoxide and tektites, Bryden's team calculated that the colliding planetary bodies must have had a combined mass more than twice that of Earth's moon. The collision probably happened between 1,000 and 100,000 years ago — a blink of an eye in cosmic terms.

The scientists used the Spitzer space telescope because, unlike normal telescopes, Spitzer detects light at invisible, infrared wavelengths.

“Spitzer wavelengths are the best wavelengths to identify types of rock,” Bryden says. “You can pin down which type of rock, dust, or gas you're looking at.”

Bryden says the discovery provides further evidence that planet-altering collisions are more common in other star systems than people once thought. The “crash-bang” processes at work in our own solar system may indeed be universal. If so, Spitzer has a front row seat on a truly smashing show.

See Spitzer Space Telescope's brand new Web site at http://spitzer.caltech.edu/. Kids can learn about infrared light and see beautiful Spitzer images by playing the new Spitzer Concentration game at http://spaceplace.jpl.nasa.gov/en/kids/spitzer/concentration.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
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Staring at Lightning

NASA Space Place

The Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM) on the next generation of GOES satellites will detect the very rapid and transient bursts of light produced by lightning at near-infrared wavelengths. This image was taken from the International Space Station and shows the Aurora Australis and lightning.
Click image for larger view.
There's something mesmerizing about watching a thunderstorm. You stare at the dark, dramatic clouds waiting for split-second bursts of brilliant light — intricate bolts of lightning spidering across the sky. Look away at the wrong time and (FLASH!) you miss it.

Lightning is much more than just a beautiful spectacle, though. It's a window into the heart of the storm, and it could even provide clues about climate change.earth_lightningThe

Strong vertical motions within a storm cloud help generate the electricity that powers lightning. These updrafts are caused when warm, moist air rises. Because warmth and lightning are inextricably connected, tracking long-term changes in lightning frequency could reveal the progress of climate change.

It's one of many reasons why scientists want to keep an unwavering eye on lightning. The best way to do that? With a satellite 35,800 km overhead.

At that altitude, satellites orbit at just the right speed to remain over one spot on the Earth's surface while the planet rotates around its axis — a “geostationary” orbit. NASA and NOAA scientists are working on an advanced lightning sensor called the Geostationary Lightning Mapper (GLM) that will fly onboard the next generation geostationary operational environmental satellite, called GOES-R, slated to launch around 2015.

“GLM will give us a constant, eye-in-the-sky view of lightning over a wide portion of the Earth,” says Steven Goodman, NOAA chief scientist for GOES-R at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. Once GLM sensors are flying on GOES-R and its sister GOES-S, that view will extend 18,000 km from New Zealand, east across the Pacific Ocean, across the Americas, and to Africa's western coast.
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Meteor shower to light up skies for two days

Lunar & Planetary

MANILA, Philippines - A “prolific” meteor shower is expected to light up the skies of Asia and Europe for two days – tonight (Nov. 17) and Wednesday (Nov. 18), the government-run weather bureau Pagasa said yesterday.

Here in the Philippines, Pagasa administrator Prisco Nilo said Filipinos will get a glimpse of the meteorological phenomenon known as the “Leonids” meteor shower between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. of the following day.

“We have a very good chance to see the meteor showers,” Nilo said.

He, however, stressed that people in the Visayas and Mindanao will have a difficult time seeing the meteor showers because of the intertropical convergence zone which is expected to bring scattered rainshowers this week.

According to a NASA statement, “The Leonids meteor shower is created by bits of debris left behind by the repeat passages through the inner solar system of comet 55P/Tempel-Tuttle. This year, it may produce another enhanced return, with Zenithal Hourly Rates (ZHRs) predicted to peak at more than 40 meteors per hour according to independent theoretical work by Astronomers David Asher, Esko Lyytinen and Marku Nissinen, Mikhail Maslov, and Jérémie Vaubaillon.”“There are several streams and this year, the Earth will pass through one of the streams laid down in the year 1466. Most astronomers did not expect it to produce much, but observers in Asia and Europe may see as many as 100 meteors per hour, which shows the 1466 stream is rich in meteor-producing debris. This year our planet will pass through this stream again, but this time closer to its center where more material will slam into our atmosphere. The meteoroids, typically the size of a sand grain, vaporizes as it travels downward in the atmosphere. Some pea-sized objects create dramatic fireballs,” the statement added. - By Dennis Carcamo (Philstar News Service, www.philstar.com)

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Galileo Events and Star Party Set for January


Galileo Galilei
Fort Smith, Arkansas — The University of Arkansas - Fort Smith will host special events and provide a “star party” in January to mark the 400th anniversary of Galileo's historic discovery of the moons of Jupiter with the newly invented telescope.

Dr. Todd Timmons of Fort Smith, professor of mathematics and history of science, said multiple events will be scheduled on Jan. 19 and 21.

“Each activity is devoted to Galileo, his work and his significance,” said Dr. Timmons. “Galileo's discovery of the moons of Jupiter is one of the most important events leading to the eventual acceptance of the Copernican system and a critical component of the scientific revolution.”

Sponsors are the Arkansas Oklahoma Astronomical Society and UA Fort Smith's College of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics; the College of Humanities and Social Sciences; and the Center for Lifelong Learning.

A showing of “Galileo's Battle for the Heavens,” a PBS dramatization of Dava Sobel's best-selling book “Galileo's Daughter,” is planned for 7:30 p.m. Jan. 19 in room 101 of the Math-Science Building.

Dr. Kerry Magruder, curator of the history of science collections at the University of Oklahoma, will present a multi-media talk titled “The Works of Galileo: A Guided Tour” at 3:30 p.m. Jan. 21 in the Boreham Conference Center, room 101 of the Baldor Technology Center.

Those attending Magruder's talk will move to the Campus Green immediately after he speaks to view the moons of Jupiter and other revelations discovered by Galileo.

“All events are free and are open to the public,” said Dr. Timmons. “We encourage everyone interested in the PBS documentary to read the book prior to the event.”

Dr. Timmons said he was excited about what Dr. Magruder will share when he comes to Fort Smith.

“OU's Galileo exhibit is one of the most extensive in the world,” said Dr. Timmons, “and this is a wonderful opportunity for residents of our area to glimpse what is included in the exhibit.”

Dr. Timmons said Dr. Magruder's talk will present Galileo's life and works, showing what Galileo accomplished and what made him an international sensation.
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Ares 1-X to Fly October 27

General NewsAmerica’s next step into space is about to enter the testing stage. The Ares1-X test flight vehicle has been assembled, and transported to the newly renovated launch complex 39B at Kennedy Space Center. From whence once rose the mighty Saturn V toward man’s first steps onto another world, now stands the beginning of what may take man back to the Moon, and possibly on to Mars.

The new Ares 1-X stands ready for its first flight tests on October 27. At 342 feet tall, it almost reaches the record height of the Saturn V’s 363 feet.
How cool is it that the first test launch of the NASA’s new Constellation Program is about to take place this month? If all goes as planned, October 27 will be the day that the first stage of the new rocket configuration will take flight. The upper stage will be unmanned and unused, except for several hundred sensors designed to “feel” how well things are going with the solid rocket first stage. The four-segment first stage is technology that is well tested since it is designed and built by the same company that has provided twin solid-rocket boosters for every shuttle launch for the last 25 years.

How this first launch will go. The primary reasons for this test is to qualify the booster, the parachute that will recover it after it's fuel is spent, and the entire lower half of the rocket. The top half of the rocket, loaded with sensors, will fall back into the ocean never reaching a speed sufficient to obtain orbit.
The launch will test the lower portions of the rocket and how well it works to put the top section high enough into space to allow the upper stage engines to send it the rest of the way into orbit. It will look like a normal liftoff and roll-and-pitch program, but as the solid rocket booster's energy drops below 40,000lb of thrust, the separation will take place and the upper half of the rocket will coast on until it falls back into the ocean some 125 nautical miles downrange. The recovery of the lower stage will depend on the parachute operating properly. Tests of the parachute earlier this summer worked perfectly to a level equivalent that of a 250,000lb load limit. The expected 110lb/sq ft stress of the parachute material was met, so the lower stage should parachute back to Earth safely.

Where the Apollo/Saturn program used 3 stages altogether to place the manned Command Module (CM) in orbit around the Moon and back to Earth, that was obviously a very wasteful endeavor. ALL of the rocket EXCEPT for the CM was never used again.....its sole purpose was to boost the CM to the Moon and back, and land the Lunar Module and power it back to the lunar orbiting CM, then jettisoning the remainder of the LM and allowing it to fall back to the Moon's surface to calibrate seismic measuring devices on the lunar surface.

The Ares 1 rocket will only "waste" the upper stage of the rocket with its J-2X engines, which are based on the Shuttle engine design and considered to be safe. By reusing the solid-fuel booster stage and the new 6-man rated Command Module, we'll see savings with every flight. Another safety factor with the new Command and Service Modules is that instead of using Hydrogen fuel cells in the Service Module, that dangerous method of creating water, electricity, and so much of what was needed in the Apollo missions, the Orion Command and Service Module will utilize solar panels to generate the power needed to operate the systems on board, and carry the water and oxygen with them.

If the Tuesday, October 27th launch date is met, we'll see this first crucial step in the change-over from the Space Shuttle as our main Earth to orbit vehicle. We will see at least 2 or 3 more test flights between now and 2012-2013 when the Constellation Program has its first manned flights, as the final 6 Shuttle flights bring that era to its inevitable end. It's a new day with this upcoming launch, and I, for one, am really excited to see it begin.
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Spitzer, the Sequel

The “warm mission” of the Spitzer Space Telescope will still be able to use two sensors in its Infrared Array Camera (IRAC) to continue its observations of the infrared universe.
The Spitzer Space Telescope is getting a second chance at life.

The liquid helium “lifeblood” that flows through the telescope has finally run out, bringing Spitzer's primary mission to an end. But a new phase of this infrared telescope's exploration of the universe is just beginning.

Even without liquid helium, which cooled the telescope to about 2 degrees above absolute zero (-271°C), Spitzer will continue to do important research — some of which couldn't easily be done during its primary mission. For example, scientists will use Spitzer's “second life” to explore the rate of expansion of the universe, study variable stars, and search for near-Earth asteroids that could pose a threat to our planet.

“We always knew that a 'warm phase' of the mission was a possibility, but it became ever more exciting scientifically as we started to plan for it seriously,” says JPL's Michael Werner, Project Scientist for Spitzer. “Spitzer is just going on and on like the Energizer bunny.”

Launched in August 2003 as the last of NASA's four Great Observatories, Spitzer specializes in observing infrared light, which is invisible to normal, optical telescopes.

That gives Spitzer the power to see relatively dark, cool objects such as planet-forming discs or nearby asteroids. These objects are too cold to emit light at visible wavelengths, but they're still warm enough to emit infrared light.

In fact, all warm objects “glow” with infrared light — even telescopes. That's why Spitzer had to be cooled with liquid helium to such a low temperature. Otherwise, it would be blinded by its own infrared glow.

As the helium expires, Spitzer will warm to about 30 degrees above absolute zero (–243°C). At that temperature, the telescope will begin emitting long-wavelength infrared light, but two of its short-wavelength sensors will still work perfectly.

And with more telescope time available for the remaining sensors, mission managers can more easily schedule new research proposals designed for those sensors. For example, scientists have recently realized how to use infrared observations to improve our measurements of the rate of expansion of the universe. And interest in tracking near-Earth objects has grown in recent years — a task for which Spitzer is well suited.

“Science has progressed, and people always have new ideas,” Werner says. In its second life, Spitzer will help turn those ideas into new discoveries.

For kids, The Space Place Web site has a fun typing game using Spitzer and infrared astronomy words. Check it out at spaceplace.nasa.gov/en/kids/spitzer/signs.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
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Holloway Comet Observatory To Show Astrophotography

Comet C2001-Q4 (NEAT)
Comet C2001-Q4 (NEAT)
Copyright © 2001 - Mike Holloway
Comet 17/P Holmes
Comet 17/P Holmes – 11/16/2007
Copyright © 2007 - Mike Holloway
Mike Holloway, noted comet hunter and one of the most prolific digital astrophotographers of the Arkansas Oklahoma Astronomical Society will be showing a select group of his best work at the Fort Smith Art Center in downtown Fort Smith during the entire month of October, 2009.

These special photographic prints will be on display in the Staircase Gallery at the Fort Smith Art Center from Thursday, October 1, 2009 through Saturday, October 31, 2009.

Comet 17/P Holmes
Comet 17/P Holmes – 11/06/2007
Copyright © 2007 - Mike Holloway
Many of Mike’s images have been used by well-known scientific research groups in the US as a part of their on-going research efforts. Some of these images have revealed data and details about comets that the researchers could not get in any other way. Mike has honed his craft over a period of many years, and he has spent a great deal of effort, time, and funds in perfecting his techniques.

As an example of Mike’s collaboration with the scientific community, have a look at Mike’s story A Comet Caught By Its Trail on the Sky and Telescope web site. Mike is also a member of the CARA Project, or Cometary Archive for Amateur Astronomers. Mike’s images are found on a number of scientific web sites. Holloway Comet Observatory also maintains a Gallery on FotoTime that contains some great images by Mike.

To set up the showing, Mike has chosen eight different comets, starting in 2001, and he has been working to put this together since October of last year.  There are multiple images of a few comets and a 6-image set of Comet 17/P Holmes showing the evolution of the explosion.  Most are large prints of as large as 36” x 36”, so all the detail can be seen.  Mike has also put in a couple of Moon shots “just because I like them.” We’re sure we’ll like them as well.

It is Mike’s hope that this shows well for the community of amateur astronomers in this area and what can be accomplished.  Mike says it will hopefully show as art as well. This is a first for Mike, and as members of AOAS, we want to show him strong support from the amateur astronomy community and our wishes for his continued success.  So please attend the showing at some point in October if at all possible. The Fort Smith Art Center is located at 423 N. 6th Street in Fort Smith, AR, and can be reached at 479-784-2787.

The Arkansas Oklahoma Astronomical Society is proud to have Mike as a member, and proud of his valued contributions to both amateur astronomy and the scientific community.
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A Planet Named Easterbunny?

NASA Space Place Artist's rendering of dwarf planet MakeMake, discovered around Easter 2005. Unlikely to gain acceptance their nickname Easterbunny, the discoverers named it for the god of humanity in the mythology of Easter Island.
Artist's rendering of dwarf planet MakeMake, discovered around Easter 2005. Unlikely to gain acceptance their nickname Easterbunny, the discoverers named it for the god of humanity in the mythology of Easter Island.
You know Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. But how about their smaller cousins Eris, Ceres, Orcus, and Makemake? How about Easterbunny?

These are all names given to relatively large “planet-like” objects recently found in the outer reaches of our solar system. Some were just temporary nicknames, others are now official and permanent. Each has a unique story.

“The names we chose are important,” says Caltech astronomer Mike Brown, who had a hand in many of the discoveries. “These objects are a part of our solar system; they're in our neighborhood. We ‘gravitate’ to them more if they have real names, instead of technical names like 2003 UB313.”

Nearby planets such as Venus and Mars have been known since antiquity and were named by the ancient Romans after their gods. In modern times, though, who gets to name newly discovered dwarf planets and other important solar-system bodies?

In short, whoever finds it names it. For example, a few days after Easter 2005, Brown and his colleagues discovered a bright dwarf planet orbiting in the Kuiper belt. The team's informal nickname for this new object quickly became Easterbunny.

However, ever since its formation in 1919, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) ultimately decides whether to accept or reject the name suggested by an object's discoverers. "Easterbunny" probably wouldn't be approved.

According to IAU guidelines, comets are named after whoever discovered them—such as comet Hale-Bopp, named after its discoverers Alan Hale and Thomas Bopp. Asteroids can be named almost anything. IAU rules state that objects in the Kuiper belt should be given mythological names related to creation.

So Brown's team started brainstorming. They considered several Easter-esque names: Eostre, the pagan mythological figure that may be Easter's namesake; Manabozho, the Algonquin rabbit trickster god.

In the end, they settled on Makemake (pronounced MAH-kay MAH-kay), the creator of humanity in the mythology of Easter Island, so named because Europeans first arrived there on Easter 1722.

Other names have other rationales. The dwarf planet discovered in 2005 that triggered a fierce debate over Pluto's status was named Eris, for the Greek goddess of strife and discord. Another dwarf planet with an orbit that mirrors Pluto's was dubbed Orcus, a god in Etruscan mythology that, like Pluto, ruled the underworld.

Brown says he takes “this naming business” very seriously and probably spends too much time on it. “But I enjoy it.” More tales of discovery and naming may be found in Brown's blog MikeBrownsPlanets.com.

Constellations have also been named after ancient gods, human figures, and animals. Kids can start to learn their constellations by making a Star Finder for this month at spaceplace.nasa.gov/en/kids/st6starfinder/st6starfinder.shtml. There you will also find a handy explanation of why astrology has no place in science.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
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SARSAT to the Rescue

NASA Space Place NOAA's polar-orbiting and geostationary satellites, along with Russia's Cospas spacecraft, are part of the sophisticated, international Search and Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking System.
NOAA's polar-orbiting and geostationary satellites, along with Russia's Cospas spacecraft, are part of the sophisticated, international Search and Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking System.
If a plane crashes in the woods and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?

Never mind contemplating this scenario as a philosophical riddle. This can be a real life or death question. And the answer most of the time is that, even if no people are nearby, something is indeed listening high above.

That something is a network of satellites orbiting about 450 miles overhead. The “sound” they hear isn't the crash itself, but a distress signal from a radio beacon carried by many modern ships, aircraft, and even individual people venturing into remote wildernesses.

In the last 25 years, more than 25,000 lives have been saved using the satellite response system called Search and Rescue Satellite-Aided Tracking (SARSAT). So what are these life-saving superhero satellites?

Why, they are mild-mannered weather satellites.

“These satellites do double duty,” says Mickey Fitzmaurice, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) systems engineer for SARSAT. “Their primary purpose is to gather continuous weather data, of course. But while they're up there, they might as well be listening for distress signals too.”

In February, NASA launched the newest of these Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellites (or POES) into orbit. This new satellite, called N-Prime at launch and now dubbed NOAA-19, prevents a gap in this satellite network as another, aging NOAA satellite reached the end of its operational life.

“The launch of N-Prime was a big deal for us,” Fitzmaurice says. With N-Prime/NOAA-19 in place, there are now six satellites in this network. Amongst them, they pass over every place on Earth, on average, about once an hour.

To pinpoint the location of an injured explorer, a sinking ship, or a downed plane, POES use the same Doppler effect that causes a car horn to sound higher-pitched when the car is moving toward you than it sounds after it passes by.

In a similar way, POES “hear” a higher frequency when they're moving toward the source of the distress signal, and a lower frequency when they've already passed overhead. It takes only three distress-signal bursts — each about 50 seconds apart — to determine the source's location.

Complementing the POES are the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites (GOES), which, besides providing weather data, continuously monitor the Western Hemisphere for distress signals. Since their geostationary orbit leaves them motionless with respect to Earth below, there is no Doppler effect to pinpoint location. However, they do provide near instantaneous notification of distress signals.

In the future, the network will be expanded by putting receivers on new Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites, Fitzmaurice says. “We want to be able to locate you after just one burst.” With GPS, GOES will also be able to provide the location of the transmitter.

Philosophers beware: SARSAT is making “silent crashes” a thing of the past.

Download a two-page summary of NOAA-19 at www.osd.noaa.gov/POES/NOAA-NP_Fact_Sheet.pdf. The Space Place gives kids a chance to rescue stranded skiers using their emergency rescue beacons. The Wild Weather Adventure game awaits them at spaceplace.nasa.gov/en/kids/goes/wwa.

This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
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New NASA Images Indicate Object Hits Jupiter

Lunar & PlanetaryPASEDENA, CA — July 20, 2009

This image shows a large impact shown on the bottom left on Jupiter's south polar region captured on July 20, 2009, by NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility in Mauna Kea, Hawaii. Credit: NASA/JPL/Infrared Telescope Facility
Scientists have found evidence that another object has bombarded Jupiter, exactly 15 years after the first impacts by the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9.

Following up on a tip by an amateur astronomer that a new dark "scar" had suddenly appeared on Jupiter, this morning between 3 and 9 a.m. PDT (6 a.m. and noon EDT) scientists at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., using NASA's Infrared Telescope Facility at the summit of Mauna Kea, Hawaii, gathered evidence indicating an impact.

New infrared images show the likely impact point was near the south polar region, with a visibly dark "scar" and bright upwelling particles in the upper atmosphere detected in near-infrared wavelengths, and a warming of the upper troposphere with possible extra emission from ammonia gas detected at mid-infrared wavelengths.

"We were extremely lucky to be seeing Jupiter at exactly the right time, the right hour, the right side of Jupiter to witness the event. We couldn't have planned it better," said Glenn Orton, a scientist at JPL.

Orton and his team of astronomers kicked into gear early in the morning and haven't stopped tracking the planet. They are downloading data now and are working to get additional observing time on this and other telescopes.

This image was taken at 1.65 microns, a wavelength sensitive to sunlight reflected from high in Jupiter's atmosphere, and it shows both the bright center of the scar (bottom left) and the debris to its northwest (upper left).

"It could be the impact of a comet, but we don't know for sure yet," said Orton. "It's been a whirlwind of a day, and this on the anniversary of the Shoemaker-Levy 9 and Apollo anniversaries is amazing."

Shoemaker-Levy 9 was a comet that had been seen to break into many pieces before the pieces hit Jupiter in 1994.

Leigh Fletcher, a NASA postdoctoral student at JPL who worked with Orton during these latest observations said, "Given the rarity of these events, it's extremely exciting to be involved in these observations. These are the most exciting observations I've seen in my five years of observing the outer planets!"

The observations were made possible in large measure by the extraordinary efforts of the Infrared Telescope Facility staff, including telescope operator William Golisch, who adroitly moved three instruments in and out of the field during the short time the scar was visible on the planet, providing the wide wavelength coverage.

JPL is managed for NASA by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena

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