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Two amateur astronomers yesterday observed the third cosmic hit suffered by Jupiter in the past 16 years. Researchers are now wondering just how many small bodies—asteroids or comets—are swarming about the outer solar system. The first impact event—actually a string of hits—came in 1994 when 21 fragments of disrupted comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 plowed into Jupiter. The second was unseen on the planet's back side last year; Australian amateur astronomer Anthony Wesley was the first to report the lingering dusty black scar in the jovian upper atmosphere. Then yesterday, Wesley caught a flash of light in a video near Jupiter's limb that was quickly confirmed by video from amateur Christopher Go in the Philippines. The solar system's heaviest planet, Jupiter is prone to impacts, but astronomers had been expecting centuries-long intervals between them. A key question now is whether the latest hit was a comet like Shoemaker-Levy or an asteroid, as last year's is suspected to have been.
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*This article has been corrected. It originally stated that this is the third cosmic hit Jupiter suffered in the past 6 years, instead of 16, and that the first hit was in 2004, not 1994.