Jupiter has a rocky core that is more than twice as large as previously thought, according to computer calculations by a geophysicist who simulated conditions inside the planet on the scale of individual hydrogen and helium atoms. “Our simulations show there is a big rocky object in the center surrounded by an ice layer and hardly any ice elsewhere in the planet,” said Burkhard Militzer from University of California, Berkeley. “This is a very different result for the interior structure of Jupiter than other recent models, which predict a relatively small or hardly any core and a mixture of ices throughout the atmosphere.” A comparison of this model with the planet’s known mass, radius, surface temperature, gravity and equatorial bulge implies that Jupiter’s core is an Earth-like rock 14 to 18 times the mass of Earth, or about one-twentieth of Jupiter’s total mass, Militzer said. Previous models predicted a much smaller core of only 7 Earth masses, or no core at all.
The simulation suggests that the core is made of layers of metals, rocks and ices of methane, ammonia and water, while above it is an atmosphere of mostly hydrogen and helium. At the center of the rocky core is probably a metallic ball of iron and nickel, just like Earth’s core.
“Basically, Jupiter’s interior resembles that of Saturn, with a Neptune or Uranus at the center,” he said. Neptune and Uranus have been called “ice giants” because they also appear to have a rocky core surrounded by icy hydrogen and helium, but without the gas envelope of Jupiter and Saturn.
“This new calculation by Burkhard removes a lot of the old uncertainties of the 19-year-old model we have had until now,” said coauthor William B. Hubbard from the University of Arizona. “The new thermodynamic model is a more precise physical description of what’s going on inside Jupiter.”
The large, rocky core implies that as Jupiter and other giant gas planets formed 4.5 billion years ago, they grew through the collision of small rocks that formed cores that captured a huge atmosphere of hydrogen and helium.
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“According to the core accretion model, as the original planetary nebula cooled, planetesimals collided and stuck together in a runaway effect that formed planet cores,” Militzer said. “If true, this implies that the planets have large cores, which is what the simulation predicts. It is more difficult to make a planet with a small core.”
In order to match the observed gravity of Jupiter, Militzer’s simulation also predicts that different parts of Jupiter’s interior rotate at different rates. Jupiter can be thought of as a series of concentric cylinders rotating around the planet’s spin axis, with the outer cylinders – the equatorial regions – rotating faster than the inner cylinders. This is identical to the sun’s rotation, Militzer said.
The researchers say their model matches up well with data from the Galileo spacecraft, which orbited Jupiter from 1995 -2003.
Militzer plans to use the new model to simulate other planets’ interiors, and to investigate the implications for the formation of planets outside our solar system. Future data from NASA’s Juno mission, to be launched in 2011 and orbit Jupiter by 2016 to measure the planet’s magnetic field and gravity, will provide a check on Militzer’s predictions.
Source: UC Berkeley