Jupiter collided with a protoplanet early in its life say scientists

Rice University           Jupiter Impact

Rice University Jupiter Impact

Before NASA's Juno mission launched to orbit and study Jupiter, scientists thought that the planet's core was dense and compact.

Jupiter may have been struck by a huge protoplanet long ago, spreading the heavy material inside the planet's core across a much wider area inside the planet than we'd typically expect to find.

Scientists now have a theory on what caused the odd readings for the planet. The researchers estimate that it would have been roughly 10 times as massive as Earth, and it would have messed things up so dramatically that it would take billions of years to settle back down, explaining why the core of Jupiter isn't almost as dense and compact as scientists think it should be.

Rice astronomer Andrea Isella says that she was skeptical when Shang-Fei Liu first suggested the head-on collision theory could explain some of the mysteries of Jupiter. "But Shang-Fei convinced me, by sheer calculation, that this was not so improbable".

The global team of researchers used simulations of model collisions between the still-forming Jupiter with baby planets. And Jupiter's heavy mass acts nearly as a guidance system, meaning head-on collisions are actually more likely than glancing blows, if an object veers close enough. Furthermore, Liu ran 3D computer models that showed how a head-on collision would impact Jupiter's core. A giant planetary embryo ten times as massive as the Earth, crashed head first into proto-Jupiter as the Solar System's planets were forming in the morass of debris encircling the Sun. The core isn't as dense as researchers suspected, but determining why that is has proven to be a challenge.

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The team determined that the developing planet that collided with Jupiter must have been about 10 times the mass of the Earth, because "smaller impactors can not penetrate Jupiter's massive envelope", Liu said. "The head-on impact spreads things out, diluting the core", said Isella.

But if NASA's theory is correct, it could revolutionise our understanding about the solar system's violent birth. The same scientists expect that Jupiter isn't unique in this regard, as they say that Saturn could have experienced similar events. "This is still a new field, so the results are far from solid, but as some people have been looking for planets around distant stars, they sometimes see infrared emissions that disappear after a few years".

"One idea is that if you are looking at a star as two rocky planets collide head-on and shatter, you could create a cloud of dust that absorbs stellar light and reemits it", he said. "And then after some time, the dust dissipates and that emission goes away".

A team of astronomers from Japan, China, Switzerland, and the USA used data from NASA's Juno space probe to investigate Jupiter's structure and composition, according to research published Wednesday in the journal Nature.

Additional co-authors of the study include Yasunori Hori of the Astrobiology Center of Japan, Simon Müller and Ravit Helled of the University of Zurich, Xiaochen Zheng of Tsinghua University in Beijing and Doug Lin of both the University of California, Santa Cruz, and Tsinghua University in Beijing.

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