Giant Planets

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While the inner four planets seem large, they are nothing compared to the four outer planets, which are also known as gas giants or Jovian planets. The four giant planets in our Solar System are Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.

Jupiter is the largest planet in our Solar System, and it truly is a giant planet. Jupiter is so large that you could fit 1321 Earths inside the planet. It is a gas giant, which means that it is comprised almost entirely of gas with a liquid core of heavy metals. Since none of the gas giants has a solid surface, you cannot stand on any of these planets, nor can spacecraft land on them. Another common characteristic of the giant planets is that they all have dozens of moons. In fact, Jupiter has 63 moons that have been discovered so far.  

All of the giant planets in our Solar System have rings, but Saturn’s rings are by far the most famous of any. This planet’s ring system is composed of rock, dust, and other particles. The other planetary ring systems are made of similar elements.

Uranus and Neptune are also gas giants, but instead of just helium and hydrogen, they also have significant amounts of ices in their atmospheres. These ices include water, methane, and ammonia. It is the methane in the atmospheres of Uranus and Neptune that give the planets their blue color. Uranus and Neptune are also known as ice giants because of the proportion of ices in their atmospheres.

Giant planets are not limited to our Solar System either. In fact, astronomers have discovered many Jupiter-like planets in other solar systems. For example, in 2007, a group of British astronomers discovered three gas giants that are heavier than Jupiter is. These gas giants are much closer to their star than our Solar System’s gas giants are to the Sun. Scientists think that this may be one reason why these extrasolar planets are heavier, suggesting that only heavier planets can survive closer to a star. Because these planets are so much closer to their sun, they are much hotter than Jupiter and our Solar System’s other gas giants are.

These are just a handful of the gas giants discovered in different solar systems. Astronomers have discovered other extrasolar planets much bigger than Jupiter. Since all of the first extrasolar planets found were gas giants similar to Jupiter, astronomers began to despair of ever finding Earth-like planets that could support life. Recently though, astronomers have discovered different types of extrasolar planets, raising their hopes of finding life on other planets.

Universe Today has a number of articles to check out on gas giants and how big planets get.

You should also take a look at these articles on gas giants and British scientists discover giant planets hotter and heavier than Jupiter.

Astronomy Cast has an episode on extrasolar planets, hot Jupiters, and pulsar planets you should not miss.

How Big Do Planets Get?

Question: How Big Can Planets Get?

Answer: Here in the Solar System, we have three kinds of planets: the inner terrestrial planets, the gas giants, and the ice planets. Sadly, Pluto is no longer a planet, so we won’t deal with that here. We know how big our planets are, but how big can planets actually get in other Solar Systems. What are the biggest possible planets?

Let’s start with terrestrial planets, like our Earth. We’ll set the size of the Earth and 1 Earth radius, and the mass as 1 Earth mass. We’ve seen that terrestrial planets can get smaller, with Mars and Mercury, and astronomers have detected larger terrestrial planets orbiting other stars.

The largest known rocky planet is thought to be Gliese 436 c. This is probably a rocky world with about 5 Earth masses and 1.5 times our planet’s radius. Amazingly, this planet is thought to be within its star’s habitable zone.

What’s the largest possible rocky planet? For this I put in an email to Dr. Sean Raymond, a post doctoral researcher at the Center for Astrophysics and Space Astronomy (CASA) at the University of Colorado. Here’s what he had to say:

“The largest “terrestrial” planet is generally considered the one before you get too thick of an atmosphere, which happens at about 5-10 Earth masses (something like 2 Earth radii). Those planets are more Earth-like than Neptune-like.”

Gas giants, of course, can come much larger. Jupiter is 317 times more massive than Earth, and 11 times larger. You could fit 1,400 Earths inside Jupiter.

Thebiggest planet in the Universe (at the time of this writing) is TrES-4, which is located 1,400 light years away in the constellation Hercules. The planet has been measured to be 1.4 times the size of Jupiter, but it only has 0.84 times Jupiter’s mass. With such a low density, the media was calling TrES-4 the puffy planet.

And once again, how large can they get? Again, here’s Dr. Raymond:

“In terms of gaseous planets, once they reach 15 Jupiter masses or so there is enough pressure in the core to ignite deuterium fusion, so those are considered “brown dwarfs” rather than planets.”

What is the biggest planet in the Solar System?