Tuesday, June 28, 2022

Jupiter may have grown large by feeding on young planets

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In ancient mythology, it is Saturn who devours his children. But in reality, it turns out that Jupiter is the one eating baby planets.

In a new article published in the magazine IcarusResearchers analyzing data from NASA’s Juno mission realized that Jupiter’s core is more massive than some previous models of the gas giant’s formation had predicted.

One possible explanation is that at some point in the past Jupiter consumed planetesimals – baby planets – and turned these potential planets into a center of mass that attracted the rest of the matter that made up the large planet.

Jupiter is the largest planet in the solar system and has twice the mass of all the other planets combined because it sucked up most of the leftover hydrogen gas left over from the sun’s formation.

This abundant hydrogen makes up most of the giant planet’s vast atmosphere and is liquefied by pressure at greater depths into a vast ocean of electrically conductive, metallic liquid hydrogen, the source of Jupiter’s powerful magnetic field.

Some theories about the formation of Jupiter state that the planet was condensed from a cloud of gas from a vase, with parts of the cloud swirling denser and gaining mass until they collapsed in on itself; much like how stars form, but without becoming massive enough to trigger a thermonuclear reaction and become a small star. Other theories suggest that the collisions of small, icy space rocks may have formed a small seed of rocky mass around which Jupiter as we know it merged.

But whether a small rocky core lies at the heart of Jupiter or whether it has a “fuzzier” core of heavy elements diluted with hydrogen and helium is not known for certain. As the researchers write in the new publication, “There is no unambiguous solution to Jupiter’s internal structure, and more than one density profile can satisfy all observational limitations.”

Much of what scientists know about Jupiter’s interior comes from gravitational measurements taken by NASA’s Juno spacecraft, which has been orbiting and studying the gas giant since 2016.

By analyzing the Juno data, the researchers found an anomaly: Previous models suggested that Jupiter’s core, whatever it’s made of, accounts for about 10 percent of the planet’s mass. But in their new models using the Juno data, the researchers found that this region accounts for 30 percent or more of the planet’s mass, implying a higher-than-expected amount of elements heavier than hydrogen and helium.

Several scenarios could explain the new model, but the researchers settle on one they think is the most likely: Rather than growing out of a cluster of small space rocks, Jupiter’s early growth may have been fueled by collisions between much larger planetesimals. This would explain the heavier elements in Jupiter’s core, but could also have major implications for how we understand planet formation around our Sun and other stars.

Scientists know that Jupiter’s gravity has influenced the formation and orbits of other planets, and that large gas giants forming early in other star systems could exert a similar influence.

But if gas giants must also devour the planetesimals that, if they survive, could one day grow into rocky planets like Earth, these gas giants may have even more influence on the formation of other planets – and life as we know it – than they once did Thought.

There are other, if slightly less possible, explanations for Jupiter’s heavy center, the researchers note in the publication, including a giant impact from a large body of rock sometime in Jupiter’s early years.

To have certainty, “future high-resolution observations of planet-forming regions around other stars are needed from the observed and modeled architectures of extrasolar systems with giant planets and future Juno data obtained during its expanded mission,” they write.

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