An object, probably a comet that nobody saw coming, plowed into the giant planet's colorful cloud tops sometime Sunday, splashing up debris and leaving a black eye the size of the Pacific Ocean. This was the second time in 15 years that this had happened. The whole world was watching when Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 fell apart and its pieces crashed into Jupiter in 1994, leaving Earth-size marks that persisted up to a year.
That's Jupiter doing its cosmic job, astronomers like to say. Better it than us. Part of what makes the Earth such a nice place to live, the story goes, is that Jupiter's overbearing gravity acts as a gravitational shield deflecting incoming space junk, mainly comets, away from the inner solar system where it could do for us what an asteroid apparently did for the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Indeed, astronomers look for similar configurations - a giant outer planet with room for smaller planets in closer to the home stars - in other planetary systems as an indication of their hospitableness to life.
Anthony Wesley, the Australian amateur astronomer who first noticed the mark on Jupiter and sounded the alarm on Sunday, paid homage to that notion when he told The Sydney Morning Herald, "If anything like that had hit the Earth it would have been curtains for us, so we can feel very happy that Jupiter is doing its vacuum-cleaner job and hoovering up all these large pieces before they come for us."
But is this warm and fuzzy image of the King of Planets as father-protector really true?
"I really question this idea," said Brian G. Marsden of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, referring to Jupiter as our guardian planet. As the former director of the International Astronomical Union's Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams, he has spent his career keeping track of wayward objects, particularly comets, in the solar system.
Jupiter is just as much a menace as a savior, he said. The big planet throws a lot of comets out of the solar system, but it also throws them in.
Take, for example, Comet Lexell, named after the Swedish astronomer Anders Lexell. In 1770 it whizzed only a million miles from the Earth, missing us by a cosmic whisker, Dr. Marsden said. That comet had come streaking in from the outer solar system three years earlier and passed close to Jupiter, which diverted it into a new orbit and straight toward Earth.
The comet made two passes around the Sun and in 1779 again passed very close to Jupiter, which then threw it back out of the solar system.
"It was as if Jupiter aimed at us and missed," said Dr. Marsden, who complained that the comet would never have come anywhere near the Earth if Jupiter hadn't thrown it at us in the first place.
Hal Levison, an astronomer at the Southwest Research Institute, in Boulder, Colo., who studies the evolution of the solar system, said that whether Jupiter was menace or protector depended on where the comets came from. Lexell, like Shoemaker Levy 9 and probably the truck that just hit Jupiter, most likely came from an icy zone of debris known as the Kuiper Belt, which lies just outside the orbit of Neptune, he explained. Jupiter probably does increase our exposure to those comets, he said.
But Jupiter helps protect us, he said, from an even more dangerous band of comets coming from the so-called Oort Cloud, a vast spherical deep-freeze surrounding the solar system as far as a light-year from the Sun. Every once in a while, in response to gravitational nudges from a passing star or gas cloud, a comet is unleashed from storage and comes crashing inward.
Jupiter's benign influence here comes in two forms. The cloud was initially populated in the early days of the solar system by the gravity of Uranus and Neptune sweeping up debris and flinging it outward, but Jupiter and Saturn are so strong, Dr. Levison said, that, first of all, they threw a lot of the junk out of the solar system altogether, lessening the size of this cosmic arsenal. Second, Jupiter deflects some of the comets that get dislodged and fall back in, Dr. Levison said.
"It's a double anti-whammy," he said.
Asteroids pose the greatest danger of all to Earth, however, astronomers say, and here Jupiter's influence is hardly assuring. Mostly asteroids live peacefully in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, whose gravity, so the standard story goes, keeps them too stirred to coalesce into a planet but can cause them to collide and rebound in the direction of Earth.
That's what happened, Greg Laughlin of the University of California at Santa Cruz, said, to a chunk of iron and nickel about 50 yards across roughly 10 million to 100 million years ago. The result is a hole in the desert almost a mile wide and 500 feet deep in northern Arizona, called Barringer Crater. A gift, perhaps, from our friend and lord, Jupiter.
Comment: Regarding the claim that Jupiter "protects us from an even more dangerous band of comets coming from the so-called Oort Cloud", let's see what Clube and Napier, British astronomers and writers of The Cosmic Serpent, have to say:
The giant comets normally reside far beyond the planets, in a spherical cloud surrounding the Sun, called the Oort cloud. There is also evidence for a flattened disk of comets closer to the inner solar system, called the Edgeworth/Kuiper belt. What prompts members of either of these comet repositories to enter the realm of the planets? Clube and Napier suggest a galactic influence. The solar system periodically passes through the plane of the galaxy as the Sun (and the solar system with it) orbits the galactic center. Each passage may dislodge giant comets and divert them closer to the Sun. The outer planets, particularly Jupiter, may then perturb some of these giant comets into orbits which enter the inner solar system. These comets, stressed both by gravity and by heat from the sun, may fragment into a cloud of smaller objects with dynamically similar orbits.
Chiron offers a good example of a giant comet as called for by Clube and Napier's giant comet hypothesis. Chiron is somewhere between 148 and 208 kilometers in diameter. Currently Chiron's unstable "parking orbit" lies mostly between Saturn and Uranus. Chiron may end up injected into the inner solar system within a hundred thousand years, or ejected from the solar system on a similar time scale. It is also possible that Chiron has already visited the inner solar system.
The Taurid complex and the Kreutz sungrazer group are two families of objects which most likely represent the fragmented remains of two giant comets in the current era. SOHO has recently discovered many new members of the Kreutz group which were previously unknown.
The Kreutz progenitor was injected into a retrograde orbit and attained the sungrazing state at a high inclination to the ecliptic. Hence the debris of its "children" does not pose a threat to the Earth. The Taurid progenitor on the other hand ended up in a short-period low-inclination prograde orbit. This is why the Earth can encounter its debris with potentially calamitous results.
What would happen should the Earth pass through the orbit of a disintegrating giant comet just before or after the comet passes that same point? Since larger fragments tend to cluster close to the nucleus of the comet, chances would increase that the Earth would be bombarded by these larger fragments. The severity of this comet fragment shower would far exceed any ordinary meteor shower. Not only would "shooting stars" and bright fireballs caused by small debris appear, but so too would large airbursts and possibly ground impacts. These would result in significant destruction should they occur over an inhabited area. If a large enough fragment struck in the ocean -- say, 200 meters or so in diameter -- it would raise tsunamis even at a great distance that would sweep away coastal habitations.
Duncan Steel, a colleague of Clube and Napier, refers to this process as coherent catastrophism. Widespread destruction derives from the coherent arrival of many impactors within a few days, as opposed to the sporadic arrival of objects spread randomly in space. The shower repeats for a period of years until the cometary orbit precesses so that the Earth no longer encounters the dense part of the debris field. (Of course, sporadic debris unrelated to the disintegrating comet may impact at any time as well.)