After studying Shoemaker-Levy 9's (SL9) erratic orbit, Brian Marsden of the Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams sent a startling e-mail announcement: SL9 was going to collide with Jupiter in July of 1994. David Levy read the announcement and exclaimed to Carolyn Shoemaker, "Carolyn, our comet is gonna hit Jupiter!" Carolyn did not seem pleased at all that their comet was headed on a collision course. When her husband, Gene, read the same e-mail, he said, "I never thought I'd live to see this! We're going to see an impact!" The Earth was in for the show of the century.
Same Data, Different Viewpoints
The impending impact created quite a buzz among scientists. They debated whether SL9 was a comet or an asteroid, and they couldn't agree on whether the object would affect hefty Jupiter at all. "The Big Fizzle is coming!" said Paul Weissman in the journal Nature. He thought that the comet would fall apart before it ever collided with Jupiter's atmosphere. Astronomer Brian Marsden didn't think that scientists would see any evidence of the impact on Jupiter. So far, the planet hadn't suffered any visible damage from kilometer-sized comets striking it every few years. These disagreements among astronomers are not unusual. Often, scientists interpret the same data in a different way.
After fifteen months of anticipation, was it possible that SL9 would provide a spectacular show?
Words from a Scientist: Heidi Hammel -- Boom, Boom, Boom!
Shoemaker-Levy 9's (SL9) wreck with Jupiter created quite a show! Heidi Hammel, an astronomer from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, realized that within a 20-hour span, three chunks of the comet were going to hit one after another in the same region of the planet, creating "one heck of a mess!"