You may remember the mythology behind the Greek gods, more commonly known as the Olympians. Kronos, the Greek god of time and the king of the titans, was to swallow a young Zeus due to a prophecy stating he would be dethroned by his own son.
However, Rhea, Zeus’ mother, switched him with a rock, allowing the soon-to-be king of the gods to live and eventually defeat Kronos, save his siblings from their father’s belly, and dethrone him.
Unfortunately, the planet named after Zeus’ Roman name, Jupiter, seems to be the one doing the swallowing of younglings this time, or more specifically, young planets.
NASA recently discovered through its Juno space probe that it may have devoured planetesimals to help it grow into the gas giant we know today, per Space.com.
This discovery is said to be the first time experts have peered into what’s beyond the clouds of the largest planet in our solar system.
Jupiter’s Devouring of Planetesimals
In a new study, NASA was able to use Jupiter’s gravitational data collected by its Juno space probe to map out the rocky material at the gas giant’s core. The mapping revealed that Jupiter contains an abundance of heavy elements and a chemical make-up that suggests that Jupiter devoured planetesimals to fuel its expansive growth.
Although Juno’s findings support the theory that Jupiter indeed absorbs planetesimals to itself to help it grow into the gas giant we know today, there is another theory that could explain why Jupiter became the largest planet in our solar system.
The other theory suggests that Jupiter managed to collect billions of small space rocks called “pebbles,” which are closer in size to boulders as opposed to the pebbles we see here on Earth.
These pebbles would then be pulled by Jupiter’s gravity that its rocky core became so dense it started attracting large amounts of gas from far away, turning Jupiter into the gas giant we know.
These gases, which mostly consisted of hydrogen and helium, are thought to be leftovers from the sun’s birth.
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To know which theory is correct, NASA combined data gathered from Juno and its predecessor, Galileo, to build computer models of Jupiter’s core to measure the planet’s gravitational field at different points around its orbit.
The combination revealed that Jupiter has a high concentration of heavy elements that have a stronger gravitational effect than the planet’s atmosphere. Further analysis of the model made from combining Juno and Galileo’s data revealed that there is an equivalent of between 11 and 30 Earth masses of heavy elements within Jupiter, suggesting that the planetesimal theory is correct.
Yamila Miguel, an astrophysicist at Leiden University in The Netherlands, argued that if Jupiter had initially formed from space pebbles, it wouldn’t have as many Earth masses inside it. The accumulated gas during Jupiter’s creation would have made a pressure barrier that stops more pebbles from being pulled inside the planet.
However, Miguel didn’t give a definite answer as to what theory is the correct one, adding that more research is needed to know the planet’s activities from within.
Juno Space Probe Details
The Juno space probe is the spacecraft assigned to orbit Jupiter after its predecessor, Galileo, was decommissioned. It is one of the first space probes to be solar-powered and carries solar panels that have a total length of more than 20 meters, per Britannica.
NASA Mentioned that the space probe was launched on August 5, 2011, with it entered Jupiter’s orbit on July 4, 2016. During its stay in Jupiter’s orbit, it has collected more than 375 gigabytes of data about Jupiter and has provided many images of the planet and its many moons.
The space probe carries instruments that help it study Jupiter’s auroras, magnetosphere, atmosphere, and gravitational field.
It is currently on an extended mission to continue its investigation of Jupiter until September 2025 or until Juno’s end of life. If the former happens first, Juno will be deliberately burned up in Jupiter’s atmosphere.
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