What’s Inside Jupiter?

Jupiter is like a jawbreaker. Dig down beneath the swirling clouds and you’ll pass through layer after layer of exotic forms of hydrogen. What’s down there, deep within Jupiter?

What’s inside Jupiter? Is it chameleons? Candy? Cake? Cheddar? Chemtrails? No one knows. No one can ever know.

Well, that’s not entirely true… or even remotely true. Jupiter is the largest planet in the Solar System and two and a half times the mass of the other planets combined. It’s a gas giant, like Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. It’s almost 90% hydrogen and 10% helium, and then other trace materials, like methane, ammonia, water and some other stuff. What would be a gas on Earth behaves in very strange ways under Jupiter’s massive pressure and temperatures.

So what’s deep down inside Jupiter? What are the various layers and levels, and can I keep thinking of it like a jawbreaker? At the very center of Jupiter is its dense core. Astronomers aren’t sure if there’s a rocky region deep down inside. It’s actually possible that there’s twelve to forty five Earth masses of rocky material within the planet’s core. Now this could be rock, or hydrogen and helium under such enormous forces that it just acts that way. But you couldn’t stand on it. The temperatures are 35,000 degrees C. The pressures are incomprehensible.

Surrounding the core is a vast region made up of hydrogen. But it’s not a gas. The pressure and temperature transforms the hydrogen into an exotic form of liquid metallic hydrogen, similar to the liquid mercury you’d see in a thermometer. This metallic hydrogen region turns inside the planet, and acts like an electric dynamo. Similar to our planet’s own iron core, this gives the planet a powerful magnetic field.

The next level up is still liquid hydrogen, but the pressure’s lower, so it’s not metallic any more. And then above this is the planet’s atmosphere. The upper layers of Jupiter’s atmosphere is the only part we can see. Those bands on the planet are clouds of ammonia that rotate around the planet in alternating directions. The lighter color zones are colder ammonia ice upwelling from below. Here’s the exciting part. Astronomers aren’t sure what the darker regions are.

This animated gif shows Voyager 1's approach to Jupiter during a period of over 60 Jupiter days in 1979.  Credit: NASA.
This animated gif shows Voyager 1’s approach to Jupiter during a period of over 60 Jupiter days in 1979. Credit: NASA.

Still think you want to descend into Jupiter, to try and walk on its rocky interior? NASA tried that. In order to protect Jupiter’s moons from contamination, NASA decided to crash the Galileo spacecraft into the planet at the end of its mission. It only got point two percent of the way down through Jupiter’s radius before it was completely destroyed.

Jupiter is a remarkably different world from our own. With all that gravity, normally lightweight hydrogen behaves in completely exotic ways. Hopefully in the future we’ll learn more about this amazing planet we share our Solar System with.

What do you think? Is there a rocky core deep down inside Jupiter?

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How Do You Jumpstart A Dead Star?

It’s a staple of science fiction, restarting our dying star with some kind of atomic superbomb. Why is our Sun running out of fuel, and what can we actually do to get it restarted?

Stars die. Occasionally threatening the Earth and its civilization in a variety plot devices in science fiction. Fortunately there’s often a Bruce Willis coming in to save the day, delivering a contraption, possibly riding a giant bomb shaped like a spaceship, to the outer proximity of our dying Sun that magically fixes the broken star and all humanity is saved.

Is there any truth in this idea? If our Sun dies, can we just crack out a giant solar defibrillator and shock it back into life? Not exactly.

First, let’s review at how stars die. Our Sun is halfway through its life. It’s been going for about 4.5 billion years, and in 5 billion years it’ll use up all the hydrogen in its core, bloat up as a red giant, puff off its outer layers and collapse down into a white dwarf.

Is there a point in there, anywhere, that we could get it back to acting like a sun? Technically? Yes. Did you know it will only use up a fraction of its fuel during its lifetime? Only in the core of the Sun are the temperatures and pressures high enough for fusion reactions to take place. This region extends out to roughly 25% of the radius, which only makes up about 2% of the volume.

Outside the core is the radiative zone, where fusion doesn’t take place. Here, the only way gamma radiation can escape is to be absorbed and radiated countless times, until it reaches the next layer of the Sun: the convective zone. Here temperatures have dropped to the point that the whole region acts like a giant lava lamp. Huge blobs of superheated stellar plasma rise up within the star and release their energy into space. This radiative zone acts like a wall, keeping the potential fuel in the convective zone away from the fusion furnace.

Cutaway to the Interior of the Sun. Credit: NASA
Cutaway to the Interior of the Sun. Credit: NASA

So, if you could connect the convective zone to the solar core, you’d be able to keep mixing up the material in the Sun. The core of the Sun would be able to efficiently fuse all the hydrogen in the star.

Sound crazy? Interestingly, this already happens in our Universe. For red dwarf stars with less than 35% the mass of the Sun, their convective zones connect directly to the core of the star. This is why these stars can last for hundreds of billions and even trillions of years. They will efficiently use up all the hydrogen in the entire star thanks to the mixing of the convective zone. If we could create a method to break through the radiative zone and get that fresh hydrogen into the core of the Sun, we could keep basking in its golden tanning rays for well past its current expiration date.

I never said it would be easy. It would take stellar engineering at a colossal scale to overcome the equilibrium of the star. A future civilization with an incomprehensible amount of energy and stellar engineering ability might be able to convert our one star into a collection of fully convective red dwarf stars. And these could sip away their hydrogen for trillions of years.

Tell us in the comments on how you think we should go about it. My money is on giant ‘magic bullet’ blender” or a perhaps a Dyson solar juicer.

Could Jupiter Become A Star?

NASA’s Galileo spacecraft arrived at Jupiter on December 7, 1995, and proceeded to study the giant planet for almost 8 years. It sent back a tremendous amount of scientific information that revolutionized our understanding of the Jovian system. By the end of its mission, Galileo was worn down. Instruments were failing and scientists were worried they wouldn’t be able to communicate with the spacecraft in the future. If they lost contact, Galileo would continue to orbit the Jupiter and potentially crash into one of its icy moons.

Galileo would certainly have Earth bacteria on board, which might contaminate the pristine environments of the Jovian moons, and so NASA decided it would be best to crash Galileo into Jupiter, removing the risk entirely. Although everyone in the scientific community were certain this was the safe and wise thing to do, there were a small group of people concerned that crashing Galileo into Jupiter, with its Plutonium thermal reactor, might cause a cascade reaction that would ignite Jupiter into a second star in the Solar System.

Hydrogen bombs are ignited by detonating plutonium, and Jupiter’s got a lot of hydrogen.Since we don’t have a second star, you’ll be glad to know this didn’t happen. Could it have happened? Could it ever happen? The answer, of course, is a series of nos. No, it couldn’t have happened. There’s no way it could ever happen… or is there?

Jupiter is mostly made of hydrogen, in order to turn it into a giant fireball you’d need oxygen to burn it. Water tells us what the recipe is. There are two atoms of hydrogen to one atom of oxygen. If you can get the two elements together in those quantities, you get water.

In other words, if you could surround Jupiter with half again more Jupiter’s worth of oxygen, you’d get a Jupiter plus a half sized fireball. It would turn into water and release energy. But that much oxygen isn’t handy, and even though it’s a giant ball of fire, that’s still not a star anyway. In fact, stars aren’t “burning” at all, at least, not in the combustion sense.

Jupiter as imaged by Michael Phillips on July 25th, 2009... note the impact scar discovered by Anthony Wesley to the lower left.
Jupiter as imaged by Michael Phillips on July 25th, 2009.

Our Sun produces its energy through fusion. The vast gravity compresses hydrogen down to the point that high pressure and temperatures cram hydrogen atoms into helium. This is a fusion reaction. It generates excess energy, and so the Sun is bright. And the only way you can get a reaction like this is when you bring together a massive amount of hydrogen. In fact… you’d need a star’s worth of hydrogen. Jupiter is a thousand times less massive than the Sun. One thousand times less massive. In other words, if you crashed 1000 Jupiters together, then we’d have a second actual Sun in our Solar System.

But the Sun isn’t the smallest possible star you can have. In fact, if you have about 7.5% the mass of the Sun’s worth of hydrogen collected together, you’ll get a red dwarf star. So the smallest red dwarf star is still about 80 times the mass of Jupiter. You know the drill, find 79 more Jupiters, crash them into Jupiter, and we’d have a second star in the Solar System.

There’s another object that’s less massive than a red dwarf, but it’s still sort of star like: a brown dwarf. This is an object which isn’t massive enough to ignite in true fusion, but it’s still massive enough that deuterium, a variant of hydrogen, will fuse. You can get a brown dwarf with only 13 times the mass of Jupiter. Now that’s not so hard, right? Find 13 more Jupiters, crash them into the planet?

As was demonstrated with Galileo, igniting Jupiter or its hydrogen is not a simple matter.
We won’t get a second star unless there’s a series of catastrophic collisions in the Solar System.
And if that happens… we’ll have other problems on our hands.

Will The Sun Explode?

All stars die, some more violently than others.

Once our own Sun has consumed all the hydrogen fuel in its core, it too will reach the end of its life. Astronomers estimate this to be a short 7 billion years from now. For a few million years, it will expand into a red giant, puffing away its outer layers. Then it’ll collapse down into a white dwarf and slowly cool down to the background temperature of the Universe.

I’m sure you know that some other stars explode when they die. They also run out of fuel in their core, but instead of becoming a red giant, they detonate in a fraction of a second as a supernova.

So, what’s the big difference between stars like our Sun and the stars that can explode as supernovae?

Mass. That’s it.

Supernova progenitors – these stars capable of becoming supernovae – are extremely massive, at least 8 to 12 times the mass of our Sun. When a star this big runs out of fuel, its core collapses. In a fraction of a second, material falls inward to creating an extremely dense neutron star or even a black hole. This process releases an enormous amount of energy, which we see as a supernova.

If a star has even more mass, beyond 140 times the mass of the Sun, it explodes completely and nothing remains at all. If these other stars can detonate like this, is it possible for our Sun to explode?

Could there be some chain reaction we could set off, some exotic element a rare comet could introduce on impact, or a science fiction doomsday ray we could fire up to make the Sun explode?

Nope, quite simply, it just doesn’t have enough mass. The only way this could ever happen is if it was much, much more massive, bringing it to that lower supernovae limit.

In other words, you would need to crash an equally massive star into our Sun. And then do it again, and again.. and again… another half dozen more times. Then, and only then would you have an object massive enough to detonate as a supernova.

We don't have to worry about our sun exploding into a supernova.
We don’t have to worry about our sun exploding into a supernova.

Now, I’m sure you’re all resting easy knowing that solar detonation is near the bottom of the planetary annihilation list. I’ve got even better news. Not only will this never happen to the Sun, but there are no large stars close enough to cause us any damage if they did explode.
A supernova would need to go off within a distance of 100 light-years to irradiate our planet.

According to Dr. Phil Plait from Bad Astronomy, the closest star that could detonate as a supernova is the 10 solar mass Spica, at a distance of 260 light-years. No where near close enough to cause us any danger.

So don’t worry about our Sun exploding or another nearby star going supernova and wiping us out. You can put your feet up and relax, as it’s just not going to happen.

How Does a Star Form?

We owe our entire existence to the Sun. Well, it and the other stars that came before. As they died, they donated the heavier elements we need for life. But how did they form?

Stars begin as vast clouds of cold molecular hydrogen and helium left over from the Big Bang. These vast clouds can be hundreds of light years across and contain the raw material for thousands or even millions of times the mass of our Sun. In addition to the hydrogen, these clouds are seeded with heavier elements from the stars that lived and died long ago. They’re held in balance between their inward force of gravity and the outward pressure of the molecules. Eventually some kick overcomes this balance and causes the cloud to begin collapsing.

That kick could come from a nearby supernova explosion, collision with another gas cloud, or the pressure wave of a galaxy’s spiral arms passing through the region. As this cloud collapses, it breaks into smaller and smaller clumps, until there are knots with roughly the mass of a star. As these regions heat up, they prevent further material from falling inward.

At the center of these clumps, the material begins to increase in heat and density. When the outward pressure balances against the force of gravity pulling it in, a protostar is formed. What happens next depends on the amount of material.

Some objects don’t accumulate enough mass for stellar ignition and become brown dwarfs – substellar objects not unlike a really big Jupiter, which slowly cool down over billions of years.

If a star has enough material, it can generate enough pressure and temperature at its core to begin deuterium fusion – a heavier isotope of hydrogen. This slows the collapse and prepares the star to enter the true main sequence phase. This is the stage that our own Sun is in, and begins when hydrogen fusion begins.

If a protostar contains the mass of our Sun, or less, it undergoes a proton-proton chain reaction to convert hydrogen to helium. But if the star has about 1.3 times the mass of the Sun, it undergoes a carbon-nitrogen-oxygen cycle to convert hydrogen to helium. How long this newly formed star will last depends on its mass and how quickly it consumes hydrogen. Small red dwarf stars can last hundreds of billions of years, while large supergiants can consume their hydrogen within a few million years and detonate as supernovae. But how do stars explode and seed their elements around the Universe? That’s another episode.

We have written many articles about star formation on Universe Today. Here’s an article about star formation in the Large Magellanic Cloud, and here’s another about star formation in NGC 3576.

Want more information on stars? Here’s Hubblesite’s News Releases about Stars, and more information from NASA’s imagine the Universe.

We have recorded several episodes of Astronomy Cast about stars. Here are two that you might find helpful: Episode 12: Where Do Baby Stars Come From, and Episode 13: Where Do Stars Go When they Die?

Source: NASA

Stacking Galactic Signals Reveals A Clearer Universe

Very similar to stacking astronomy images to achieve a better picture, researchers from the International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (ICRAR) are employing new methods which will give us a clearer look at the history of the Universe. Through data taken with the next generation of radio telescopes like the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), scientists like Jacinta Delhaize can “stack” galactic signals en masse to study one of their most important properties… how much hydrogen gas is present.

Probing the cosmos with a telescope is virtually using a time machine. Astronomers are able to look back at the Universe as it appeared billions of years ago. By comparing the present with the past, they are able to chart its history. We can see how things have changed over the ages and speculate about the origin and future of the vastness of space and all its many wonders.

“Distant, younger, galaxies look very different to nearby galaxies, which means that they’ve changed, or evolved, over time,” said Delhaize. “The challenge is to try and figure out what physical properties within the galaxy have changed, and how and why this has happened.”

According to Delhaize a vital clue to solving the riddle lay in hydrogen gas. By understanding how much of it that galaxies contained will help us map their history.

“Hydrogen is the building block of the Universe, it’s what stars form from and what keeps a galaxy ‘alive’,” said Delhaize.

“Galaxies in the past formed stars at a much faster rate than galaxies now. We think that past galaxies had more hydrogen, and that might be why their star formation rate is higher.”

Jacinta Delhaize with CSIRO's Parkes Radio Telescope during one of her data collecting trips. Credit: Anita Redfern Photography.
Jacinta Delhaize with CSIRO’s Parkes Radio Telescope during one of her data collecting trips. Credit: Anita Redfern Photography.
When it comes to distant galaxies, they don’t give up their information easily. Even so, it was a task that Delhaize and her supervisors were determined to observe. The faint radio signals of hydrogen gas were nearly impossible to detect, but the new stacking method allowed the team to collect enough data for her research. By combining the weak signals of thousands of galaxies, Delhaize then “stacked” them to create a stronger, averaged signal,

“What we are trying to achieve with stacking is sort of like detecting a faint whisper in a room full of people shouting,” said Delhaize. “When you combine together thousands of whispers, you get a shout that you can hear above a noisy room, just like combining the radio light from thousands of galaxies to detect them above the background.”

However, it wasn’t a slow process. The researchers engaged CSIRO’s Parkes Radio Telescope for 87 hours and surveyed a large region of galactic landscape. Their work collected signals from hydrogen over a vast amount of space and stretched back over two billion years in time.

“The Parkes telescope views a big section of the sky at once, so it was quick to survey the large field we chose for our study,” said ICRAR Deputy Director and Jacinta’s supervisor, Professor Lister Staveley-Smith.

Stacking up a clearer picture of the Universe from ICRAR on Vimeo.

As Delhaize explains, observing such a massive volume of space means more accurate calculations of the average amount of hydrogen gas present in particular galaxies at a certain distance from Earth. These readings correspond to a given period in the history of the Universe. With this data, simulations can be created to depict the Universe’s evolution and give us a better understanding of how galaxies formed and evolved with time. What’s even more spectacular is that next generation telescopes like the international Square Kilometre Array (SKA) and CSIRO’s Australian SKA Pathfinder (ASKAP) will be able to observe even larger volumes of the Universe with higher resolution.

“That makes them fast, accurate and perfect for studying the distant Universe. We can use the stacking technique to get every last piece of valuable information out of their observations,” said Delhaize. “Bring on ASKAP and the SKA!”.

Original Story Source: International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research.

LRO Makes a Map of the Moon’s Water

The Moon might seem like a poor place to hunt for water, but in fact there’s a decent amount of the stuff dispersed throughout the lunar soil — and even more of it existing as ice deposits in the dark recesses of polar craters. While the LCROSS mission crashed a rocket stage into one of these craters in October 2009 and confirmed evidence of water in the resulting plume of debris, there haven’t been any definitive maps made of water deposits across a large area on the Moon — until now.

Over the course of several years, NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter scanned the Moon’s south pole using its Lunar Exploration Neutron Detector (LEND) to measure how much hydrogen is trapped within the lunar soil. Areas exhibiting suppressed neutron activity — shown above in blue — indicate where hydrogen atoms are concentrated most, strongly suggesting the presence of water molecules… aka H2O.

The incredibly-sensitive LEND instrument measures the flux of neutrons from the Moon, which are produced by the continuous cosmic ray bombardment of the lunar surface. Even a fraction of hydrogen as small as 100 ppm can make a measurable change in neutron distribution from the surface of worlds with negligible atmospheres, and the hydrogen content can be related to the presence of water.

No other neutron instrument with LEND’s imaging capability has ever been flown in space.

Watch the video below for more details as to how LRO and LEND obtained these results:

“While previous lunar missions have observed indications of hydrogen at the Moon’s south pole, the LEND measurements for the first time pinpoint where hydrogen, and thus water, is likely to exist.”

What’s so important about finding water on the Moon? Well besides helping answer the question of where water on Earth and within the inner Solar System originated, it could also be used by future lunar exploration missions to produce fuel for rockets, drinking water, and breathable air. Read more here.

Video credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

“Cool” Gas May Be At The Root Of Sunspots

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Although well over 40 years old, the Dunn Solar Telescope at Sunspot, New Mexico isn’t going to be looking at an early retirement. On the contrary, it has been outfitted with the new Facility Infrared Spectropolarimeter (FIRS) and is already making news on its solar findings. FIRS provides simultaneous spectral coverage at visible and infrared wavelengths through the use of a unique dual-armed spectrograph. By utilizing adaptive optics to overcome atmospheric “seeing” conditions, the team took on seven active regions on the Sun – one in 2001 and six during December 2010 to December 2011 – as Sunspot Cycle 23 faded away. The full sunspot sample has 56 observations of 23 different active regions… and showed that hydrogen might act as a type of energy dissipation device which helps the Sun get a magnetic grip on its spots.

“We think that molecular hydrogen plays an important role in the formation and evolution of sunspots,” said Dr. Sarah Jaeggli, a recent University of Hawaii at Manoa graduate whose doctoral research formed a key element of the new findings. She conducted the research with Drs. Haosheng Lin, also from the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and Han Uitenbroek of the National Solar Observatory in Sunspot, NM. Jaeggli now is a postdoctoral researcher in the solar group at Montana State University. Their work is published in the February 1, 2012, issue of The Astrophysical Journal.

You don’t have to be a solar physicist to know about the Sun’s 11 year cycle, or to understand how sunspots are cooler areas of intense magnetism. Believe it or not, even the professionals aren’t quite sure of how all the mechanisms work… especially those which cause sunspot forming areas that retard normal convective motions. Of the things we’ve learned, the spot’s inner temperature has a correlation with its magnetic field strength – with a sharp rise as the temperature cools. “This result is puzzling,” Jaeggli and her colleagues wrote. It implies some undiscovered mechanism inside the spot.

NOAA 11131 sunspot region (Dec. 6, 2010) was the most intense spot measured in this study, but far from the largest the Sun can produce. The two bottom images show the strength of the magnetic field (C) and the contrast between the interior of the spot and the surrounding photosphere (D). The first graph (A) shows how OH starts to appear in the penumbra and continues to rise as the magnetic field strength rises. Because OH forms at a lower temperature than H2, its presence implies the quantity of hydrogen molecules that could be present (B). (adapted from Jaeggli et al, 2012)

One theory is that hydrogen atoms combining into hydrogen molecules may be responsible. As for our Sun, the majority of hydrogen is ionized atoms because the average surface temperature is assessed at 5780K (9944 deg. F). However, since Sol is considered a “cool star”, researchers have found indications of heavy-element molecules in the solar spectrum – including surprising water vapor. These type of findings might prove the umbral regions could allow hydrogen molecules to combine in the surface layers – a prediction of 5% made by the late Professor Per E. Maltby and colleagues at the University of Oslo. This type of shift could cause drastic dynamic changes where gas pressure is concerned.

“The formation of a large fraction of molecules may have important effects on the thermodynamic properties of the solar atmosphere and the physics of sunspots,” Jaeggli wrote.

With direct measurements being beyond our current capabilities, the team then measured a proxy – the hydroxyl radical made of one atom each of hydrogen and oxygen (OH). According to the National Solar Observatory, “OH dissociates (breaks into atoms) at a slightly lower temperature than H2, meaning H2 can also form in regions where OH is present. By coincidence, one of its infrared spectral lines is 1565.2nm, almost the same as the 1565nm line of iron, used for measuring magnetism in a spot and one of the lines FIRS is designed to observe.”

Spectral lines are the unique "fingerprints in light" that all atoms and molecules produce. In the presence of a magnetic field in a hot gas, some lines split, betraying the presence and strength of the magnetic fields. Each line corresponds to electrons giving up energy in discrete amounts, or quanta, as light. Imposing a magnetic field on the atom makes the electrons produce multiple lines instead of one. The spread of these lines is a direct measure of the strength of the magnetic field, and is greater in the red and in the infrared spectrum. This image depicts sunspot spectra taken by FIRS with lines centered at 630.2nm (left) and 1564.8nm (right). Note the broadened area in the color ellipses, indicating line splitting inside a spot, and how the broadening is greater at the longer wavelength. Contrast is adjusted to enhance visibility in the inset boxes.

By combining both old and new data, the team measured magnetic fields across sunspots, and the OH intensity inside spots, judging the H2 concentrations. “We found evidence that significant quantities of hydrogen molecules form in sunspots that are able to maintain magnetic fields stronger than 2,500 Gauss,” Jaeggli commented. She also said its presence leads to a temporary “runaway” intensification of the magnetic field.

As for the anatomy of a sunspot, magnetic flux boils up from the Sun’s interior and slows surface convection – which in turns stops cooler gas which has radiated its heat into space. From there, molecular hydrogen is created, reducing the volume. Because it is more transparent than its atomic counterpart, its energy is also radiated into space allowing the gas to cool even more. At this point the hot gas primed by the flux compresses the cooler region and intensifies the magnetic field. “Eventually it levels out, partly from energy radiating in from the surrounding gas. Otherwise, the spot would grow without bounds. As the magnetic field weakens, the H2 and OH molecules heat up and dissociate back to atoms, compressing the remaining cool regions and keeping the spot from collapsing.”

For now, the team admits that additional computer modeling is required to validate their observations and that most of the active regions so far have been mild ones. They’re hoping that Sunspot Cycle 24 will give them more fuel to be “cool”…

Original Story Source: National Solar Observatory News Release.