Looking Up: In The Court Of The Planet King

May 14, 2018

The king of planets sports its auroral crown. This is an image composite of two different Hubble observations.
Credit NASA, ESA, and J. Nichols (University of Leicester) / nasa.gov

This week on Looking Up we learn about the second biggest object in our solar system - Jupiter.

May is a great month in the southern Colorado sky if you like things that are really big. What's the biggest thing in our neck of the woods? I'll give you a hint, it's the Sun, which contains 99.98% of all the mass of the entire Solar System - planets, asteroids, comets, dust, the works.

So all that is left is .2% to make up, well, everything else. And here's another mindbender - the gas giant planet Jupiter sucks up 99% of all that remaining stuff. Jupiter is more than twice as big as the rest of the planets added together. It's big! And tonight, it's at opposition, which means it rises with the setting Sun, and is high in our sky all night long. And you should take advantage of one of our free star parties this month to take a peek at this gassy beast.

Jupiter, even as big as it is, has the shortest day of any planet, zipping around on its axis so fast that a day lasts less than 10 hours. And it's windy. The clouds are being pushed along at about 400 mph. That's not the fastest winds in the solar system, that honor belongs to Neptune with winds at about 1400 mph, but for something the size of Jupiter, 400 mph is still cooking.

And speaking of cooking, there is one theory that some of the carbon and soot in Jupiter's atmosphere gets squished so hard by the super gravity and pressure of all that mass, that they turn into, get ready... diamonds! Yes, it may actually rain diamonds, or more likely, hail diamonds, at some point in the clouds. But don't get any clever ideas about getting a cheap engagement ring anytime soon. You'd need a pretty good coat to start with, as the temperature at the top of the clouds is about 235 degrees below zero, but by the time you get to near the core, it's a toasty 43,000 F. Talk about hot diamonds.

If you'd like to take a closer look at Jupiter or any of the other wonderful and amazing things in the sky, please visit csastro.org for a link to information on our monthly meetings and our free public star parties.