February 1, 2012

King of Gods

Jupiter, King of Gods

To the Romans, Jupiter was the ruler of the gods. The planet Jupiter is indeed somewhat special. It is the largest planet in our solar system both in mass and in radius. Along with Venus and the moon, Jupiter is one of the brightest things in the sky.

Jupiter is big. The radius is more than 10 times that of the Earth. It might sound as though that makes for a lot of potential real estate, but not so; Jupiter is a gas giant. Unlike earth which is made of metals and rocks, Jupiter is made of gas. There is no surface to speak of, we define the size of it by its atmosphere. The gas gets more and more dense as you go down into the planet. Like the earth, exactly what Jupiter's center is like is somewhat of a mystery. There are many theories, many placing a small rocky core with liquid metallic hydrogen surrounding it. Who knows.

In this picture, taken through an 8 inch telescope, you can see two the dark belts currently present on the planet. The dark belts and lighter zones between them are bands of circulation moving in opposing directions. There are very strong winds on Jupiter and the conflicting circulation of the bands causes and keeps alive many storms along their interfaces.

The Great Red Spot is an example of such a storm. It has been observed for centuries, and is kept going because it is wedged between a belt taking the top one way, and a zone traveling the other, that keep it rotating.

Another neat thing about Jupiter is how oblate it is. All planets want to be spheres, but the forces caused by rotation make them bulge out at their equator. Earth is several kilometers bigger around at the equator than around the poles. Jupiter is much much bigger around the equator, to the tune of a few thousand kilometers. You can actually see this in the photo. 

There are all sorts of other interesting things to say about this planet, but I will leave those for now.

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