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Jupiter's strange nucleus may have resulted from an early collision



The planetary breakup billions of years ago may be responsible for the strangely swollen core of Jupiter.

Recent measurements of Jupiter's gravitational field indicate that instead of the dense pit of rock and ice, Jupiter's nucleus is a fog of heavy elements that can cover half the planet's radius (SN: 6/24/17, p. 1 14). This observation, made by NASA's Juno probe, which began orbiting Jupiter in 2016, flies in the face of current planet formation models (SN: 6/25/16, p. 1 16). These models suggest that Jupiter would form from a dense nucleus that accumulated a thick coating of gas.

New computer simulations now show that Jupiter's collision with another large planetary body could have shattered Jupiter's original compact core into the diffuse collection of heavy elements seen today. Understanding the origins of Jupiter's internal structure can give insight into the processes that shape other gas giants in our solar system and around other stars, researchers say August 15 Nature.

"This impact could have happened when the solar system was very, very young and in a phase of chaos, when many objects were circling around," says Andrea Isella, astronomer at Rice University in Houston. He says that as the largest planetary body in the vicinity of Jupiter, it could gravitatively attract other objects that roam the solar system.

Heavy hitter

Billions of years ago, Jupiter could collide with a dishonest planetary body equal to about 10 Earth masses (collision and its consequences seen from left to right in this computer simulation). This impact could destroy the original compact core of the gas giant and mix heavy elements there with its gas envelope, creating the distended, indistinct core seen today.

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Billions of years ago, Jupiter could collide with a dishonest planetary body equal to about 10 Earth masses (the highest order in this computer simulation). This impact could destroy the original compact core of the gas giant and mix heavy elements there with its gas envelope to create the bloated, blurred core seen today (lower right corner).

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In the simulation, Isella and colleagues found that a planetary body of about 10 earth masses could have separated and connected to the dense core of Jupiter, causing this matter to mix with the planet's inner gas envelope. Within a few hours, the fusion would transform the original core of Jupiter, about 15 percent of the planet's radius, into a diluted core that extended to almost half the radius of Jupiter. Further simulations confirmed that this distributed core could have survived over 4 billion years to this day.

The idea that a giant impact has transformed Jupiter's internal structure is likely, says mission leader Juno Scott Bolton of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, who was not involved in the study. But other scenarios – such as heavy gas-miscible elements during Jupiter formation or the internal churning process deepening the core material – may also explain the dispersed core of Jupiter. Bolton says that computer simulations of these competitive scenarios can help discover what is most likely, noting that determining how Jupiter formed and evolved is largely "work in progress."


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