Jupiter: Earth’s Unsung Protector

Striking view of Jupiter’s Great Red Spot and turbulent southern hemisphere captured by NASA’s Juno spacecraft | Credits: NASA

If someone asks me what my favourite type of planet is, I would definitely say gas giants. I mean, just look at them! Massive, beautiful and interesting. It even rains diamonds on some of them! However, if I had to be specific, Jupiter is my ultimate choice. Not only is it the biggest planet in the family, but also one of the most influential planets in the solar system.

Let’s take a closer look at this magnificent planet where storms and hurricanes are an everyday occurrence. Jupiter is the fifth planet from the Sun and the first planet after the asteroid belt. It is also the biggest planet in the entire solar system. Jupiter can fit 1300 Earths inside it! That’s not all. The mass of Jupiter is more than two and a half times that of all the other planets in the solar system taken together. No wonder it was named after the Roman King of Gods! For night sky lovers, Jupiter is a treat to watch. With its Galilean moons and the Great Red Spot, the gas giant always charms stargazers. Jupiter has ancient storms on it which have been around since 1665! And there’s more. The Great Red Spot is bigger than the Earth. However, it is not the only beautiful and interesting feature in the Jovian atmosphere. The gas giant is covered with clouds composed of ammonia crystals and ammonium hydrosulphide. These clouds are in bands of different latitudes and are called tropical regions. Ever wondered why Jupiter is such a stormy place? Well, the answer lies in these bands. The lighter-hued bands are called zones and the darker ones are called belts. These patterns of conflicting circulation cause storms and turbulence.

As children, we were told that planets revolve around the Sun. This may not be entirely true! Let’s take the Earth as an example. The Earth and the Sun revolve about their common centre of mass called the barycentre. For all the other planets including Earth, the barycentre lies “inside” the Sun. Hence, it appears as if the planets revolve around the Sun. Our heavyweight champion, however, breaks the rules in this aspect as well. The barycentre of Jupiter and the Sun lies “above” the solar surface, thanks to Jupiter’s exceptional mass. In fact, Jupiter is so massive that “Jupiter Mass” (MJup or MJ or Jovian Mass) is used as a unit to describe the masses of extrasolar planets and brown dwarfs just like the Solar mass is used to describe the masses of other stars and black holes.

For us Earthlings, weather and temperature are dependent on the Sun. Jupiter, however, doesn’t rely on the heat it receives from the Sun. Jupiter is much farther from the Sun as compared to Earth. Hence, it receives only a fraction of the heat which we receive. It is composed predominantly of hydrogen. The convection from liquid and plasma hydrogen beneath the surface generates more heat than the planet receives from the Sun. Therefore, temperature on Jupiter is influenced more heavily by internal heat than the Sun.

Jupiter has eighty natural satellites. Compare that to Earth — which has just one Moon. From Earth, we can observe the four largest Jovian moons namely Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto which have been named after the lovers of God Jupiter in mythology. Galileo Galilei, who observed a lot many celestial objects with his telescope, discovered these moons for the first time. These Galilean moons are among the largest moons in the solar system. In fact, Ganymede is the largest satellite in the entire solar system. Not only is Ganymede bigger than Mercury, but it is also 4.5 billion years old. That’s about as old as Jupiter itself. Moreover, Ganymede is the only satellite in the solar system which has a magnetosphere.

By now, you might have guessed that Jupiter is no ordinary planet. Not only is it big, but it’s also full of interesting phenomena and unique attributes. Jupiter also has a major role in maintaining the shape of the solar system. The gravitational field of Jupiter controls the motion of several asteroids which have settled near the Lagrange points preceding and tailing Jupiter in its orbit around the Sun. These asteroids are called Trojan asteroids. These are the consequences of Jupiter’s huge mass and the resulting strong gravity.

Due to this, the gas giant has been nicknamed “vacuum cleaner of the solar system”. In fact, at the 227th meeting of the American Astronomical Society, Tom Barclay from NASA stated that “If you don’t have giant planets in your system, you have a very, very different planetary system”. Jupiter is the reason why our solar system has an asteroid belt and why there is no planet between Mars and Jupiter. Like a vigilant elder brother, Jupiter catapults comets and debris to the edge of the solar system and guards the rocky planets nestled inside its protection. With its large gravitational potential, Jupiter can alter the orbits of bodies that are headed straight at us and catapult such objects into long orbits which take hundreds or even thousands of years to return. It experiences 200 times more asteroid and comet impacts than Earth. Due to Jupiter’s influence, inner rocky planets can have circular orbits and enjoy stable climates. Imagine an Earth with extreme climates and seasons so different that one can’t believe that it’s the same planet.

Some researchers believe that Jupiter, along with other gas giants, may be responsible for the existence of water on Earth. During the early phases of their birth, gas giants send out piles of planetesimals all over and some of these hydrogen-rich planetesimals might have crashed into Earth and later reacted with oxygen to form water.

Thus, Jupiter is an underrated hero and an unsung protector who not only deflects deadly celestial blows but is also believed to be the reason behind the presence of water here on Earth. Researchers suggest that all planetary systems are fortunate enough to have massive gaseous planets on the outskirts that may harbour life. The Universe needs more planets like Jupiter.

Let’s take a moment to thank the big guy who has been around protecting us and our solar system for 4.5 billion years.

Jupiter, thanks man!

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