Jupiter is up to 9% Rock and Metal, Which Means it Ate a lot of Planets in its Youth

This image of Jupiter's turbulent atmosphere was taken by NASA's Juno spacecraft on December 30, 2020. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS

Jupiter is composed almost entirely of hydrogen and helium. The amounts of each closely conform to the theoretical quantities in the primordial solar nebula. But it also contains other heavier elements, which astronomers call metals. Even though metals are a small component of Jupiter, their presence and distribution tell astronomers a lot.

According to a new study, Jupiter’s metal content and distribution mean that the planet ate a lot of rocky planetesimals in its youth.

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Ganymede Casts a Long Shadow Across the Surface of Jupiter

NASA’s Juno spacecraft captured this view of Jupiter during the mission’s 40th close pass by the giant planet on Feb. 25, 2022. The large, dark shadow on the left side of the image was cast by Jupiter’s moon Ganymede. Image data: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS Image processing by Thomas Thomopoulos

What is that large dark smudge on Jupiter’s side? It may remind you of a certain scene from the sci-fi film “2010: The Year We Make Contact,” where a growing black spot appears in Jupiter’s atmosphere.

But this is a real photo, and the dark spot is just an elongated shadow of Ganymede, Jupiter’s largest moon. Just like when Earth’s Moon crosses between our planet and the Sun creating an eclipse for lucky Earthlings, when Jupiter’s moons cross between the gas giant and the Sun, they create shadows too.  

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This was Juno’s View on its 37th Flight Past Jupiter

Jupiter, as seen from Juno during its 37th pass over Jupiter. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Kevin M. Gill

As originally planned, Juno’s 37th close pass by Jupiter – called Perijove 37 – would have been its last. Per the original mission outline, the Juno spacecraft would have been programed to plunge into Jupiter on Perijove 37 as a mission-ending self-sacrifice. Destroying Juno would protect the Jovian moons — especially Europa — from potential future contamination by an unpowered spacecraft wandering adrift through the Jupiter system. As careful as NASA is about taking precautions to limit the amount of Earth-sourced biological material carried by robotic spacecraft, it’s incredibly difficult to ensure that no microbes might have tagged along.

But, back to Juno: as it stands now, the Juno mission is just getting started. With a mission extension granted earlier this year, Juno will continue to operate until at least 2025, with 42 extra orbits added to the mission.

And thank goodness, because the images from Perijove 37 are pretty stunning. The new mission plan put Juno on a relatively close pass to image Jupiter itself, as well as a great view of Jupiter’s moon Europa, see below.

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Juno Peers Beneath Jupiter’s Clouds to Reveal its Complex Atmosphere

Many papers are usually released at once for big space exploration missions. Usually, that happens when an entire batch of data has been analyzed.  The most recent set of papers is from Juno’s explorations of Jupiter’s atmosphere.  With this data dump, scientists now have the first 3D map of the atmosphere of the solar system’s largest planet.

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With no Solid Surface, the Atmosphere of Jupiter Behaves Quite Differently Than Earth

Jupiter’s atmosphere has plenty of distinct features, including lightning and the Great Red Spot.  But the underlying processes that drive these features are less well understood, as the physics of the gases that make up Jupiter’s atmosphere is complicated.  A team of scientists from all over the globe has found a familiar process in all the chaos, though.  They think a process that happens here on Earth might be happening on a grander scale at Jupiter.

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Giant Balls of Mush Made From Ammonia and Water Form in the Atmospheres of Uranus and Neptune

One advantage to planetary science is that insights from one planet could explain phenomena on another.  We understand Venus’ greenhouse gas effect from our own experience on the Earth, and Jupiter and Saturn share some characteristics.  But Jupiter also provides insight into other, farther out systems, such as Uranus and Neptune.  Now, a discovery from a spacecraft orbiting Jupiter might have solved a long-standing mystery about Uranus and Neptune – where has all the ammonia gone?

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Juno Captured This Image of Earth on its Way Out to Jupiter Back in 2013

The Juno spacecraft took this image of Earth during a gravity assist flyby of our planet in 2013. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Kevin M. Gill.

Since the Juno spacecraft has been in orbit around Jupiter for nearly five years — since July 4, 2016 — you may have forgotten about that time back in 2013 Juno flew past Earth. The spacecraft needed a little extra boost to reach Jupiter, so it used Earth for a gravity assist. Image editor Kevin Gill reminded us of that flyby with some stunning newly processed images of Earth, taken by the JunoCam, the “citizen science” camera on board. Pale blue dot indeed!

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With its New Extension, Juno is Going to be Visiting Jupiter’s Moons

Citizen scientist Kevin M. Gill created this image using data from the spacecraft's JunoCam imager. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The Juno mission to Jupiter has been extended to September 2025 – or however long the spacecraft can keep operating around Jupiter.

While Juno has so far focused its attention on the giant planet alone, the mission extension will include observations of Jupiter’s rings and large moons, with targeted observations and close flybys planned of the moons Ganymede, Europa, and Io.

This will be the first close flybys of these moons since the Galileo mission in 1995-2003.

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Are the Clouds of Jupiter Haunted?

Artist illustration shows what a sprite could look like in Jupiter's atmosphere. Named after a mischievous, quick-witted character in English folklore, sprites last for only a few milliseconds. They feature a central blob of light with long tendrils of light extending down toward the ground and upward. In Earth's upper atmosphere, their interaction with nitrogen give sprites a reddish hue. At Jupiter, where the predominance of hydrogen in the upper atmosphere would likely give them a blue hue. Image Description/Credit NASA

Are spirits amongst the clouds of Jupiter? The answer might be yes! A recent publication in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets has identified what appear to be “Sprites” in the Jovian Atmosphere.

In European Folklore, ‘Sprites’ (derived from Latin ‘spiritus’ or spirit) were elemental and ethereal beings visiting Earth. The term is fitting for “lightning sprites”, a natural meteorological phenomenon with many eye-witness testimonies but not captured on camera until 1989. Created by lightning discharges in Earth’s atmosphere, sprites are part of larger family of phenomena called TLE’s, or “Transient Luminous Events”, that last for only fractions of a second.

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Simulation Helps Explain Saturn’s Mysterious Hexagon

The smaller storms on Saturn interact with the larger system and as a result effectively pinch the eastern jet and confine it to the top of the planet. The pinching process warps the stream into a hexagon. Credit: Jeremy Bloxham and Rakesh K. Yadav

A new study of the mysterious hexagon-shaped storm at Saturn’s north pole suggests this phenomenon is actually the result of activity occurring across the entire planet.

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