Why Was the Shoemaker-Levy 9 Impact so Important to Astronomers?


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The 1994 impact of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 on Jupiter was important to scientists for two main reasons. First, the force of the impact drove material from deep within Jupiter to its visible surface, giving chemists and meteorologists an unprecedented look at the planet's chemistry. Second, the impact was a real-time demonstration of Jupiter's role in sweeping up comets that might otherwise reach the inner solar system.

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The deep atmosphere of Jupiter is hidden from terrestrial observers by the planet's ubiquitous upper cloud layer. Material from the planet's deepest layers is difficult to understand, as it's subject to pressures and temperatures that are mostly unknown on Earth. The kind of chemical reactions that take place deep within the Jovian atmosphere are exotic by human standards, so the upwelling of material immediately after the impact of Shoemaker-Levy 9 gave scientists a rare glimpse at the product of Jupiter's atmospheric chemistry.

Another reason the impact was important to study was its seeming confirmation of some models of early solar evolution. Most models of the early solar system predict a chaotic environment in which cometary impacts would have routinely disrupted the early development of life on Earth. It has been suggested that Jupiter tends to sweep up inner-solar-system comets with its immense gravity and keep the Earth's orbit relatively free of impactors. The 1994 impact was seemingly a demonstration of that very process.

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