See that dark spot at the top of Jupiter? In the upper quarter? Well, actually, the lower quarter, this image is flipped.

Anyway, that’s an impact site. A big one, from something called a bolide. Which, in layman’s terms, is just a really big fucking thing in space that hits something else. Most meteors are pretty small where as bolides are continent and planet killers.

Now, a bolide hitting one of the gas giants isn’t that big of a deal. Those things are huge, and they pull in space trash for AUs in all directions. Which is good, because they act as a primary line of defense to keep those things from hitting us.

The big deal with this impact is that it was found by an amateur astronomer in Australia two days ago. Not NASA, not the Europeans, not even one of the big telescope co-ops. Just some guy in Southern Australia with a 14.5″ newtonian telescope and a Linux capture station. Now, this rig probably cost him around $15k US, but that’s still not all that expensive for a telescope.

So, this amateur, Anthony Wesley, posts his findings and a debate pops up as to whether he’s seeing a real impact or just a weather system. The points and counter-points fly back and forth across Twitter and message boards. Then, SlashDot picks up on the story and melts the poor bastard’s web servers. He’s managed to scrape together a temporary website over at Samba.org, with some new pictures showing the spot in more angles.

Things were already interesting when the big boys got involved yesterday morning. The Jet Propulsion Lab (NASA’s rocket scientists) announced that they’d turned their Infrared Telescope in Hawaii toward Jupiter, and the dark spot was in fact an impact. Making Anthony Wesley’s find one of the biggest coups for amateur astronomy in history.

This won’t just be a one-off thing, either. High-powered optical telescopes are becoming cheaper and cheaper, and the Big Science people are more concerned with esoteric, non-visual stuff like dark matter and dark energy. Hell, in the last month we’ve see a rash of people capturing amazing images with just a good D-SLR camera mounted on a tripod. In a few years, the only people that are going to be left watching local space are the amateurs, and there are a hell of a lot more of them than there are guys with 3 meter telescopes like NASA’s Infrared.

Astronomy may seem big and imposing, but the chances for a big discovery are the same for a guy with a billion dollars behind him and a guy who happens to look up at the right time.

All you have to do is keep watching the skies.

The show’ll come to you.

Post-Script: If you are wondering, that bolide would have killed this planet and not even realized it had done it. The impact crater alone would have been about the size of, oh, Africa.