Jupiter

Image of Jupitor. Credit: NASA
Image of Jupitor. Credit: NASA

Jupiter, the most massive planet in our solar system — with dozens of moons and an enormous magnetic field — forms a kind of miniature solar system. Jupiter does resemble a star in composition, but it did not grow big enough to ignite. The planet’s swirling cloud stripes are punctuated by massive storms such as the Great Red Spot, which has raged for hundreds of years.

Jupiter’s appearance is a tapestry of beautiful colors and atmospheric features. Most visible clouds are composed of ammonia. Water vapor exists deep below and can sometimes be seen through clear spots in the clouds. The planet’s “stripes” are dark belts and light zones created by strong east-west winds in Jupiter’s upper atmosphere.

On 7 January 1610, using his primitive telescope, astronomer Galileo Galilei saw four small “stars” near Jupiter. He had discovered Jupiter’s four largest moons, now called Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. These four moons are known today as the Galilean satellites.

Newly discovered moons of Jupiter are reported by astronomers and acknowledged with a temporary designation by the International Astronomical Union; once their orbits are confirmed, they are included in Jupiter’s large moon count. Not including the “temporary” moons, Jupiter has 50 total.

Galileo would be astonished at what we have learned about Jupiter and its moons, largely from the NASA mission named after him. Io is the most volcanically active body in our solar system. Ganymede is the largest planetary moon and the only moon in the solar system known to have its own magnetic field. A liquid ocean may lie beneath the frozen crust of Europa, and icy oceans may also lie beneath the crusts of Callisto and Ganymede. Jupiter’s appearance is a tapestry of beautiful colors and atmospheric features. Most visible clouds are composed of ammonia. Water vapor exists deep below and can sometimes be seen through clear spots in the clouds. The planet’s “stripes” are dark belts and light zones created by strong east-west winds in Jupiter’s upper atmosphere. Dynamic storm systems rage on Jupiter. The Great Red Spot, a giant spinning storm, has been observed since the 1800s. In recent years, three storms merged to form the Little Red Spot, about half the size of the Great Red Spot.

The composition of Jupiter’s atmosphere is similar to that of the sun — mostly hydrogen and helium. Deep in the atmosphere, the pressure and temperature increase, compressing the hydrogen gas into a liquid. At depths of about a third of the way down, the hydrogen becomes metallic and electrically conducting. In this metallic layer, Jupiter’s powerful magnetic field is generated by electrical currents driven by Jupiter’s fast rotation. At the center, the immense pressure may support a solid core of rock about the size of Earth.

Jupiter’s enormous magnetic field is nearly 20,000 times as powerful as Earth’s. Trapped within Jupiter’s magnetosphere (the area in which magnetic field lines encircle the planet from pole to pole) are swarms of charged particles. Jupiter’s rings and moons are embedded in an intense radiation belt of electrons and ions trapped by the magnetic field. The Jovian magnetosphere, comprising these particles and fields, balloons 1 to 3 million km (600,000 to 2 million miles) toward the sun and tapers into a windsock-shaped tail extending more than 1 billion km (600 million miles) behind Jupiter as far as Saturn’s orbit.

Discovered in 1979 by NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft, Jupiter’s rings were a surprise: a flattened main ring and an inner cloud-like ring, called the halo, are both composed of small, dark particles. A third ring, known as the gossamer ring because of its transparency, is actually three rings of microscopic debris from three small moons: Amalthea, Thebe and Adrastea. Data from the Galileo spacecraft indicate that Jupiter’s ring system may be formed by dust kicked up as interplanetary meteoroids smash into the giant planet’s four small inner moons. The main ring probably is composed of material from the moon Metis. Jupiter’s rings are more easily visible when backlit by the sun but have been captured by Hubble Space Telescope images.

In December 1995, NASA’s Galileo spacecraft dropped a probe into Jupiter’s atmosphere, which made the first direct measurements of the planet’s atmosphere. The spacecraft then began a multiyear study of Jupiter and the largest moons. As Galileo began its 29th orbit, the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft was nearing Jupiter for a gravity-assist maneuver on the way to Saturn. The two spacecraft made simultaneous observations of the magnetosphere, solar wind, rings, and Jupiter’s auroras.

NASA launched a mission named Juno in 2011 to conduct an in-depth study of Jupiter from a polar orbit. Juno will examine Jupiter’s chemistry, atmosphere, interior structure, and magnetosphere.

This cut-away illustrates a model of the interior of Jupiter, with a rocky core overlaid by a deep layer of liquid metallic hydrogen. Image from NASA
This cut-away illustrates a model of the interior of Jupiter, with a rocky core overlaid by a deep layer of liquid metallic hydrogen. Image from NASA
Close-up of swirling clouds around Jupiter's Great Red Spot. NASA
Close-up of swirling clouds around Jupiter’s Great Red Spot. NASA
Discovered By
Known by the Ancients
Date of Discovery
Unknown
Orbit Size Around Sun (semi-major axis)
Metric: 778,340,821 km
English: 483,638,564 miles
Scientific Notation: 7.7834082 x 108 km (5.2028870 A.U.)
By Comparison: 5.203 x Earth
Perihelion (closest)
Metric: 740,679,835 km
English: 460,237,112 miles
Scientific Notation: 7.40680 x 108 km (4.951 A.U.)
By Comparison: 5.035 x Earth
Aphelion (farthest)
Metric: 816,001,807 km
English: 507,040,015 miles
Scientific Notation: 8.16002 x 108 km (5.455 A.U.)
By Comparison: 5.365 x Earth
Sidereal Orbit Period (Length of Year)
11.862615 Earth years
4,332.82 Earth days
By Comparison: 11.863 x Earth
Orbit Circumference
Metric: 4,887,595,931 km
English: 3,037,011,311 miles
Scientific Notation: 4.888 x 109 km
By Comparison: 5.200 x Earth
Average Orbit Velocity
Metric: 47,002 km/h
English: 29,205 mph
Scientific Notation: 1.3056 x 104 m/s
By Comparison: 0.438 x Earth
Orbit Eccentricity
0.04838624
By Comparison: 2.895 x Earth
Orbit Inclination
1.304 degrees
Equatorial Inclination to Orbit
3.1 degrees
Mean Radius
Metric: 69,911 km
English: 43,440.7 miles
Scientific Notation: 6.9911 x 104 km
By Comparison: 10.9733 x Earth
Equatorial Circumference
Metric: 439,263.8 km
English: 272,945.9 miles
Scientific Notation: 4.39264 x 105 km
By Comparison: 10.9733 x Earth
Volume
Metric: 1,431,281,810,739,360 km3
English: 343,382,767,518,322 mi3
Scientific Notation: 1.43128 x 1015 km3
By Comparison: 1321.337 x Earth
Mass
Metric: 1,898,130,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 kg
Scientific Notation: 1.8981 x 1027 kg
By Comparison: 317.828 x Earth
Density
Metric: 1.326 g/cm3
By Comparison: 0.241 x Earth
Surface Area
Metric: 61,418,738,571 km2
English: 23,713,907,537 square miles
Scientific Notation: 6.1419 x 1010 km2
By Comparison: 120.414 x Earth
Surface Gravity
Metric: 24.79 m/s2
English: 81.3 ft/s2
By Comparison: If you weigh 100 pounds on Earth, you would weigh 253 pounds on Jupiter.
Escape Velocity
Metric: 216,720 km/h
English: 134,664 mph
Scientific Notation: 6.020 x 104 m/s
By Comparison: 5.380 x Earth
Sidereal Rotation Period (Length of Day)
0.41354 Earth days
9.92496 hours
By Comparison: 0.41467 x Earth
Effective Temperature
Metric: -148 °C
English: -234 °F
Scientific Notation: 125 K
Atmospheric Constituents
Hydrogen, Helium
Scientific Notation: H2, He