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Topics / SCIENCE : Amateur Stargazers Scope Out Cosmic Crash

July 21, 1994|DEBORAH SULLIVAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The collision of Jupiter with Fragment B of the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 didn't look like much through the high-powered telescopes set up Saturday night by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory Astronomy Club in Pasadena.

But it was a thrill nonetheless to the several hundred visitors who waited patiently for a chance to view the cosmic crash, one of a series of such events that continued through the week. On Saturday, amateur star-watchers and New Age adherents alike became spectators to a galactic demolition derby.

Although the visual impact was far from "Star Wars" special effects, imagination picked up where the telescopes left off.

"It's fantastic! Imagine what's happening," gushed Laura Ochoa of Los Angeles, waiting in line. "A comet hitting a planet. . . . It's history!"

Shajiyah Akbar, a Pasadena resident, wondered whether the collision would have astrological consequences.

"I want to see if it has any effect on people that are ruled by Jupiter, (which) rules Sagittarius and Pisces," she said. "I thought this was a very exciting event of the century."

Aside from sheer entertainment value, the collision offered a chance for astronomers, who normally study phenomena that unfold over billions of years, to observe cosmic activity before their very eyes.

JPL employees belonging to the laboratory's Astronomy Club arrived before dusk to set up their own telescopes including some with eight- or 10-inch lenses--while speculating on what they might reveal.

Astronomical theories predicted a plenitude of possible effects from the comet's collision, said JPL engineer and Astronomy Club member Dave Nakamoto. Among them: The comet fragments would create fireballs that would light up a nearby moon. They would puncture holes in the planet's atmosphere, revealing a deeper layer of dark gases. They would release plumes of gas, similar to how a pebble dropped in a pond sends up a splash of water. The last proved the most accurate prediction.

On Saturday, the comet fragment hit the planet shortly before 8 p.m., but it struck on the far side of the planet, so the effects weren't visible for a couple of hours.

What viewers saw, at around 10 p.m. after most of the crowd had left, was a dark, diffused region, about the size of Jupiter's great red spot.

It was hard to focus on, Nakamoto said, but unmistakably there.

"It took me about 30 seconds to convince myself I was really seeing it," he said. "Jupiter was getting lower in the horizon, and the atmosphere was getting turbulent. It was like looking at a quarter at the bottom of a swimming pool."

The impact zone was the size of several Earth diameters, Nakamoto said, raising chilling implications about the possibility of a similar collision on Earth.

"Impacts of comets and asteroids are a hot topic these days, probably because a lot of people since the early '80s have speculated that they caused mass extinctions on Earth," said Bob Cesarone, a JPL engineer and Astronomy Club member.

Ismael Hernandez of Los Angeles cautioned about that danger as he distributed literature on his proposal for space colonies built of lunar dust.

"If we keep neglecting the space program and an asteroid hits the Earth, forget it," he warned. "It'll be too late."

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