Facts About Jupiter

Jupiter is named after the Roman king of the gods for good reason. It’s the largest planet in the solar system and has more moons than any other planet. But that’s not all. Read on for more facts about one of the most amazing planets in the solar system.

1. Jupiter is the king of planets by mass

Credit: Pixabay.

Everyone’s learned at school that Jupiter is the largest planet in the solar system. However, this is a bit of an understatement. Jupiter is by far the most massive cosmic body in the solar system, being 2.5 times more massive than all other planets combined. It is nearly 318 times more massive than Earth and it would take 11 Earths lined up next to each to match Jupiter’s diameter.

2. Its Great Red Spot is actually a planetary-sized storm that has been raging on for centuries

Image of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot processed using low resolution (wide angle) orange, green, and blue filtered images overlaying high resolution (narrow angle) orange images taken by Voyager 2 on July 8 1979. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Kevin M. Gill.

In 1665, famed Italian astronomer Giovanni Cassini observed a huge blemish south of Jupiter’s equator. This ‘Great Red Spot’, as it’s still called today, has been the subject of contention among astronomers for centuries. Some have proposed that the feature, which is large enough to contain 2-3 planets the size of Earth’s diameter, is a huge storm. This is indeed the case, NASA scientists found after the Voyager 1 mission completed a flyby of the planet in 1979.

Scientists confirmed that the Great Red Spot is an extremely persistent anticyclonic storm, fueled by Jupiter’s turbulent and fast-moving atmosphere.

The red spot spins anticlockwise and takes six Earth days to rotate completely. However, it remains a mystery why this stormy region is red. One possible explanation is the presence of red organic compounds.

The Great Red Spot might disappear in the next few centuries, though. During Cassini’s observations, the size of the spot is estimated to have been 40,000 km, whereas today it is about half as large. However, astronomers are fairly confident a new giant red spot will appear somewhere else on Jupiter’s surface, due to the planet’s atmospheric dynamics.

3. The first astronomers to track Jupiter were Babylonians

It’s no secret that the ancient Babylonians were skilled mathematicians. For instance, they understood the Pythagorean theorem nearly 4,000 years ago, or more than a millennium before Pythagoras himself was born.

Their mathematical prowess naturally extended to astronomy, regularly employing arithmetic to catalog the movements of celestial bodies and improve their astronomical predictions.

Mathieu Ossendrijver of Germany’s Humboldt University of Berlin spent no less than 13 years studying 2,400-year-old tablets that contained what he described as a “small bunch of four weird trapezoid computations.” He later found that the trapezoids encoded aspects of Jupiter’s motion, including its appearances on the horizon.

4. Jupiter has the shortest day of all planets, despite its hefty size

For all its monstrous size and mass, you’d think Jupiter would be slow to rotate around its axis. However, it’s the fastest spinning planet in the solar system, with a rotational velocity of 45,300 km/h.

As such, a day on Jupiter only lasts 9 hours and 55 minutes. A year, however, is much longer — Jupiter orbits the sun every 11.8 Earth years.

What’s more, due to this rapid rotation, the planet has an oblate shape with flattened poles and a bulging equator. Its powerful rotation is also responsible for the next point.

5. Jupiter has the strongest magnetic field of any planet in the solar system

 Schematic of the Jovian magnetosphere showing the Io Plasma Torus (in red), the Neutral Sodium immediately surrounding Io (in yellow), the Io flux tube (in green), and magnetic field lines (in blue). Credit: Wikimedia Commons, John Spencer.

Like Earth, Jupiter’s core is made of active, swirling molten material whose motion generates a magnetic field — and a very powerful one to boot. According to measurements performed by NASA, Jupiter’s magnetic field is at least 14 times stronger than Earth’s, making it the most powerful in the solar system.

6. Jupiter has a thin ring system

 A schematic of Jupiter’s ring system. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

This wouldn’t be a list of facts about Jupiter without mentioning its rings. Unlike Saturn’s more iconic rings, Jupiter’s are very faint and made of dust rather than ice.

For centuries, these rings were too faint for astronomers to notice. Imagine everyone’s surprise when NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft beamed back images of Jupiter’s rings in 1979. The three-ring system begins some 92,000 kilometers above Jupiter’s cloud tops and stretches out to more than 225,000 km from the planet. They are between 2,000 to 12,500 kilometers thick.

7. Jupiter has 79 moons and counting

Jupiter’s moon Ganymede in the foreground. Credit: Pixy.

Until recently, Jupiter was widely regarded as the planet of the solar system with the most natural satellites. That’s until 2019, when astronomers affiliated with the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington DC raised the total number of moons around Saturn to 82, beating Jupiter’s 79.

Almost all of Jupiter’s moons are tiny, with a diameter of less than 10 kilometers. This is also one of the reasons why astronomers are constantly finding new moons around both Jupiter and Saturn.

Jupiter does have some moons that stand out more. These four major moons are collectively known as Galilean Moons. They are Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. Ganymede, with a diameter of 5,262 km, is actually the largest moon in the solar system. And, who knows, perhaps Jupiter might regain its title as the most moon-populated planet as scientists believe it may have as many as 200 natural satellites orbiting it.

8. And some of these moons may actually be capable of harboring life

The Voyager and Galileo missions that sent spacecraft to Jupiter and its moons found that Europa, one of the biggest moons in the solar system, has a subsurface liquid ocean covered in thick ice. Now, scientists believe that Europa may actually be capable of harboring life since it meets three essential conditions: biochemically useful molecules, a source of energy, and a liquid solvent (water) in which dissolved substances can chemically react with each other.

But to ultimately find life on Europa, we have to get beneath the ice by one day putting a lander on the surface, potentially carrying a submarine.

9. Jupiter has the brightest auroras in the solar system

Artistic impression of an aurora on Jupiter.

From time to time, people are treated to nature’s dazzling fireworks show; the Aurora borealis, also known as the Northern Lights. This eye candy phenomenon is caused by the collision of energetic charged particles with atoms in the high altitude atmosphere — and it’s not reserved to Earth. Auroras have also been spotted on Mars, Uranus, and, yes, Jupiter.

Jupiter actually experiences the most intense auroras in the solar system, being hundreds of times brighter than on Earth. Just like on Earth, auroras on Jupiter are caused by solar storms. However, Jupiter has an additional source for its auroras: charged particles thrown into space by its orbiting moon Io, which is famous for its many large volcanoes.

10. Jupiter is a ‘failed star’

The gas giant is virtually made of 90% hydrogen and 10% helium, that’s mighty close to the sun’s composition. In fact, some consider Jupiter to be a ‘failed star’. Jupiter is already a big boy, but if it were roughly 80 times more massive than it is, it could have collapsed under its own gravity to form a star.

11. Jupiter is the solar system’s asteroid vacuum cleaner

Due to its sheer mass and proximity to the Kuiper belt — a huge region of space beyond Neptune packed with asteroids and dwarf planets — Jupiter attracts a lot of visitors. Astronomers believe Jupiter experiences at least 200 times more meteorite impacts than Earth. So, kudos to Jupiter for clearing the solar system of potentially hazardous asteroids that might have come dangerously close to Earth

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