Jupiter, the largest and most massive planet in our solar system, may be its own worst enemy. It turns out that its central core may in fact be self-destructing, gradually liquifying and dissolving over time. This implies it was previously larger than it is now, and may dissolve altogether at some point in the future. Will Jupiter eventually destroy itself completely? No, probably not, but it may lose its heart…
The core is composed of iron, rock and ice and weighs about ten times as much as Earth. That’s still small though, compared to the overall mass of Jupiter itself, which weighs as much as 318 Earths! The core is buried deep within the thick atmosphere of hydrogen and helium. Conditions there are brutal, with a temperature of about 16,000 kelvin – hotter than the surface of the Sun – and a pressure about 40 million times greater than the atmospheric pressure on Earth. The core is surrounded by a fluid of metallic hydrogen which results from the intense pressure deep down in the atmosphere. The bulk of Jupiter though is the atmosphere itself, hence why Jupiter (and Saturn, Uranus and Neptune) are called gas giants.
One of the primary ingredients in the rock of the core is magnesium oxide (MgO). Planetary scientists wanted to see what would happen when it is subjected to the conditions found at the core; they found that it had a high solubility and started to dissolve. So if it is in a state of dissolution, then it was probably larger in the past than it is now and scientists would like to understand the process. According to David Stevenson of the California Institute of Technology, “If we can do that, then we can make a very useful statement about what Jupiter was like at genesis. Did it have a substantial core at that time? If so, was it 10 Earth masses, 15, 5?”
The findings also mean that some exoplanets which are even larger and more massive than Jupiter, and thus likely even hotter at their cores, may no longer have any cores left at all. They would be indeed be gas giants in the most literal sense.
The conditions inside Jupiter’s core can’t be duplicated in labs yet, but the spacecraft Juno should provide much more data when it arrives at and starts orbiting Jupiter in 2016.
Paul Scott Anderson is a freelance space writer with a life-long passion for space exploration and astronomy and has been a long-time member of The Planetary Society. He currently writes for Universe Today and Examiner.com. His own blog The Meridiani Journal is a chronicle of planetary exploration.