Four Facts You Didn't Know About Jupiter

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In ancient Roman religion, Jupiter is the king of all the gods. Like Zeus to the ancient Greeks, he commanded the power of the sky, bending booming thunder and charged lightning to his will. Thus, it's no small wonder that the largest planetary body in our Solar System is named after him.

Jupiter_by_Cassini-Huygens.jpgTwo and a half times as massive as all of the other planets in the Solar System combined, Jupiter demands attention. Roiling winds and mighty clouds define its surface. No human could exist there, not even the robotic outriders we've sent to places like Mars. Instead, we've sent satellites like Voyager, Cassini, and Ulysses to safely observe the planet from afar. What they've shown us is spectacular: a great swirling storm that could swallow the Earth three times over, four orbiting moons (that we care about) -- Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto -- and a set of rings, though not as prominent as Saturn's.

All this, you may have already known or heard in passing. Here are four lesser known, but no less amazing, facts about Jupiter.

1. It's less a planet and more a failed star. So big, yet so far away: Jupiter is a massive reminder of what could have been. Had it only accumulated about ten times more stellar detritus when forming, the planet could very well have built up the mass necessary to fuse "heavy hydrogen," also known as deuterium, and thus become a brown dwarf star. Earth would then technically be part of a binary star system. Two suns would grace our skies.

2. Its core could be solid diamond. Okay, this is admittedly unlikely, but still cool. The idea, put forth by the legendary science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, is that the crushing pressures present at Jupiter's core are more than capable of rearranging atoms of carbon into a new allotrope: diamond. The element remains the same; it's simply put together differently.

Clarke's idea makes some intuitive sense. Diamonds form under a concerto of high temperatures and immense pressures, both of which Jupiter has no shortage of. On the other hand, one thing Jupiter does have a shortage of is carbon, which exists only in trace amounts within the planet.

"Whether Jupiter's core has the necessary concentration of carbon (and absence of other atoms which interfere) is rather questionable, but claims in science fiction need not be realistic, just possible," NASA's David Stern wrote.

3. It contains an ocean of metallic hydrogen. Like the diamond core theory, this notion is alluring. It also has the added benefit of being evidenced in hard fact. Unlike carbon, Jupiter has plenty of hydrogen. Much of it exists in gaseous form in the outer layers, but just a bit deeper, hydrogen takes on a more "freaky" identity. As NASA's Dauna Coulter describes, farther down into the atmosphere, immense pressures "squeeze the electrons out of the hydrogen atoms and the fluid starts to conduct like a metal." Scientists aren't even sure what the stuff looks like, they just know that it's hard to make on Earth, that it might be able to make powerful rocket fuel, and that there's a heaping, sloshy pool of it on Jupiter that's 25,000 miles deep.

4. It occasionally rains neon. Neon is a fairly light gas -- about two-thirds the density of the air we breath. Jupiter contains a trace, yet noticeable amount of the element. Yet strangely, satellite readings have shown that a mere ten percent of it exists in Jupiter's outer atmosphere. The rest, you might have guessed, is deeper down.

Because neon is comparatively massive to Jupiter's distinguishing stores of hydrogen and helium, it descends into the planet's innards. But when it it reaches the aforementioned pool of metallic hydrogen, something totally trippy happens. In a feat again perpetrated by Jupiter's colossal pressures, the neon is squashed into liquid form, and it starts to fall like rain. It's possible that these droplets could become roused in the same manner that the neon atoms within all those ubiquitous bar signs do, creating a storm of bright, glowing, red streaks!

NeTube.jpg(Images: 1. NASA 2. Pslawinski/Wikimedia Commons)

Primary Source: The

Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the

History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements, Sam Kean, 2010

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