Jupiter, in astronomy: Astronomical and Physical Characteristics

Astronomical and Physical Characteristics

Jupiter's orbit lies beyond the asteroid belt at a mean distance of 483.6 million mi (778.3 million km) from the sun; its period of revolution is 11.86 years. In order from the sun it is the first of the giant outer planets—Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune—very large, massive planets of relatively low density, having rapid rotation and a thick, opaque atmosphere. Jupiter has a diameter of 88,815 mi (142,984 km), more than 11 times that of the earth. Its mass is 318 times that of the earth and about 21⁄2 times the mass of all other planets combined.

The atmosphere of Jupiter is composed mainly of hydrogen, helium, methane, and ammonia. However, the concentration of nitrogen, carbon, sulfur, argon, xenon, and krypton—as measured by an instrument package dropped by the space probe Galileo during its 1995 flyby of the planet—is more than twice what was expected, raising questions about the accepted theory of Jupiter's formation. The atmosphere appears to be divided into a number of light and dark bands parallel to its equator and shows a range of complex features, including a storm called the Great Red Spot. Located in the southern hemisphere and varying from c.15,600 to 25,000 mi (25,000 to 40,000 km) in one direction and 7,500 to 10,000 mi (12,000 to 16,000 km) in the other, the storm rotates counterclockwise and has been observed ever since 1664, when Robert Hooke first noted it. Also in the southern hemisphere is the Little Red Spot, c.8,000 mi (13,000 km) across. It formed from three white-colored storms that developed in the 1940s, merged in 1998–2000, and became clearly red by 2006. Analysis of the data obtained when massive pieces of the comet Shoemaker Levy 9 plunged into Jupiter in 1994 has extended our knowledge of the Jovian atmosphere, and the space probe Juno revealed a number of smaller storms, each roughly the size of the earth, clustered at the planet's poles.

Jupiter has no solid rock surface. One theory pictures a gradual transition from the outer ammonia clouds to a thick layer of frozen gases and finally to a liquid or solid hydrogen mantle. Beneath its has been suggested that Jupiter may have a core of rocky material with a mass 10–15 times that of the earth. The spot and other markings of the atmosphere also provide evidence for Jupiter's rapid rotation, which has a period of about 9 hr 55 min. This rotation causes a polar flattening of over 6%. The temperature ranges from about −190℉ (−124℃) for the visible surface of the atmosphere, to 9℉ (−13℃) at lower cloud levels; localized regions reach as high as 40℉ (4℃) at still lower cloud levels near the equator. Jupiter radiates about four times as much heat energy as it receives from the sun, suggesting an internal heat source. This energy is thought to be due in part to a slow contraction of the planet. Jupiter is also characterized by intense nonthermal radio emission; in the 15-m range it is the strongest radio source in the sky. Jupiter has a huge asymetrical magnetic field, extending past the orbit of Saturn in one direction but far less in the direction of the sun. This magnetosphere traps high levels of energetic particles far more intense than those found within earth's Van Allen radiation belts. Nine space probes have encountered the Jovian system: Pioneers 10 and 11 (1973 and 1974), Voyagers 1 and 2 (both 1979), Ulysses (1992, 2004), Galileo (1995–2003), Cassini (2000), New Horizons (2007), and Juno (2016–).

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