Comet Shoemaker–Levy 9 was a comet that broke apart and collided with Jupiter in July 1994, providing the first direct observation of an extraterrestrial collision of Solar System objects. This generated a large amount of coverage in the popular media, and the comet was closely observed by astronomers worldwide. The collision provided new information about Jupiter and highlighted its role in reducing space debris in the inner Solar System.
The comet was discovered by astronomers Carolyn and Eugene M. Shoemaker and David Levy. Shoemaker–Levy 9, at the time captured by and orbiting Jupiter, was located on the night of 24 March 1993, in a photograph taken with the 40 cm (16 in) Schmidt telescope at the Palomar Observatory in California. It was the first comet observed to be orbiting a planet, and had probably been captured by the planet around 20 – 30 years earlier.
Calculations showed that its unusual fragmented form was due to a previous closer approach to Jupiter in July 1992. At that time, the orbit of Shoemaker–Levy 9 passed within Jupiter’s Roche limit, and Jupiter’s tidal forces had acted to pull apart the comet. The comet was later observed as a series of fragments ranging up to 2 km (1.2 mi) in diameter. These fragments collided with Jupiter’s southern hemisphere between 16 July and 22 July 1994, at a speed of approximately 60 km/s (37 mi/s) or 216,000 km/h (134,000 mph). The prominent scars from the impacts were more easily visible than the Great Red Spot and persisted for many months.