New Model of Jupiter's Core Ignites Planet Birth Debate

Bruce Dorminey
for National Geographic News
December 4, 2008

Underneath its swirling cloud layers, Jupiter may harbor a solid core roughly equal in mass to 16 Earths—more than twice as large as previously believed.

That's the conclusion of a controversial new computer simulation that represents the first radical rethinking of the planet's core in nearly two decades.

The work has reignited debate among planetary scientists over how gas giants such as Jupiter first formed.

"The biggest surprise was the large core," said study leader Burkhard Militzer of the University of California, Berkeley.

"We concluded that the planet formed by core accretion," when colliding grains of dust, ice, and small planetary bodies meld to create planetary embryos and eventually fully formed planets.

Core of the Issue

Many scientists think core accretion is a good model for the birth of rocky terrestrial planets.

But it has been hard to apply to gas giants, which are so gassy and massive that simulations suggest they wouldn't have had enough time to grow as large as they are between their core formations and now.

One leading alternative theory, championed by Alan Boss of the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C., is disk instability.

This is when clumps of gases inside the disk of planet-forming material around a young star will cool and collapse to form gas giants.

But if Jupiter really has a much larger rock-ice core than thought, Militzer said, the accretion model becomes a better fit.

The study comes just about two years ahead of a recently approved NASA mission called Juno that may finally put an end to the decades-long dispute.

Continued on Next Page >>


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