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Scientists find remains of baby planets swallowed by Jupiter

Metro logo Metro 6/21/2022 Anugraha Sundaravelu
These space rocks if left undisturbed could have potentially developed into rocky planets like Earth or Mars (Picture: Nasa) © Provided by Metro These space rocks if left undisturbed could have potentially developed into rocky planets like Earth or Mars (Picture: Nasa)

Scientists have found that Jupiter’s insides are made up of the remains of baby planets that the gas giant once gobbled up.

The findings come from the first clear view beneath the planet’s cloudy outer atmosphere. 

Very little was known about the largest planet in the Solar System as telescopes have only been able to capture swirling vortex clouds in the gas giant’s upper atmosphere blocked the view of what’s below.

In the new study, researchers were finally able to see past Jupiter’s gas curtain using gravitational data collected by Nasa’s Juno space probe.

This data enabled the team to map out the rocky material at the core of the giant planet, which revealed a surprisingly high abundance of heavy elements, suggesting that Jupiter devoured baby planets, or planetesimals, to grow to its current size.

Swirling vortex clouds in the gas giant’s upper atmosphere which blocked the view of what’s below (Picture: Nasa) © Provided by Metro Swirling vortex clouds in the gas giant’s upper atmosphere which blocked the view of what’s below (Picture: Nasa)

Jupiter started its life with the planet’s gravity pulling in rocks and gas from far distances. This was predominantly hydrogen and helium left over from the sun’s birth which made up its enormous gas-filled atmosphere. 

The findings from the study support a proposed theory that Jupiter’s core was formed from the absorption of many planetesimals — large space rocks spanning several miles.

These space rocks if left undisturbed could have potentially developed into rocky planets like Earth or Mars. 

‘Because we cannot directly observe how Jupiter was formed we have to put the pieces together with the information we have today,’ the study’s lead researcher Yamila Miguel told Live Science.

‘Here on Earth, we use seismographs to study the interior of the planet using earthquakes,’ Miguel said.

But since Jupiter has no surface to put such devices onto, the researchers built computer models of Jupiter’s insides by combining data collected by probes such as Juno and Galileo.

An equivalent of 11 to 30 Earth masses of heavy elements were found within Jupiter (Picture: Getty Images/Science Photo Libra) © Provided by Metro An equivalent of 11 to 30 Earth masses of heavy elements were found within Jupiter (Picture: Getty Images/Science Photo Libra)

The probes measured the planet’s gravitational field at different points around its orbit. This data enabled the team to map out slight variations in the planet’s gravity, which helped them to see where the rocky material is located within the planet.

‘Juno provided very accurate gravity data that helped us to constrain the distribution of the material in Jupiter’s interior,’ Miguel said.

The researcher’s models revealed that there is an equivalent of between 11 and 30 Earth masses of heavy elements within Jupiter (3% to 9% of Jupiter’s mass), which is much more than expected. 

Only Jupiter gobbling smaller planets explained such a high concentration of heavy elements, Miguel said.

The new findings could change the origin stories of other planets in the solar system like Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

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