Skip to main content Skip to Search Box
Summary Article: Jupiter, in astronomy
from The Columbia Encyclopedia

(jō'pӘtӘr), in astronomy, 5th planet from the sun and largest planet of the solar system.

Astronomical and Physical Characteristics

Jupiter's orbit lies beyond the asteroid belt at a mean distance of 483.6 million mi (778.3 million km) from the sun; its period of revolution is 11.86 years. In order from the sun it is the first of the Jovian planets—Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune—very large, massive planets of relatively low density, having rapid rotation and a thick, opaque atmosphere. Jupiter has a diameter of 88,815 mi (142,984 km), more than 11 times that of the earth. Its mass is 318 times that of the earth and about 2 1/2 times the mass of all other planets combined.

The atmosphere of Jupiter is composed mainly of hydrogen, helium, methane, and ammonia. However, the concentration of nitrogen, carbon, sulfur, argon, xenon, and krypton—as measured by an instrument package dropped by the space probe Galileo during its 1995 flyby of the planet—is more than twice what was expected, raising questions about the accepted theory of Jupiter's formation. The atmosphere appears to be divided into a number of light and dark bands parallel to its equator and shows a range of complex features, including a storm called the Great Red Spot. Located in the southern hemisphere and varying from c.15,600 to 25,000 mi (25,000 to 40,000 km) in one direction and 7,500 to 10,000 mi (12,000 to 16,000 km) in the other, the storm rotates counterclockwise and has been observed ever since 1664, when Robert Hooke first noted it. Also in the southern hemisphere is the Little Red Spot, c.8,000 mi (13,000 km) across. It formed from three white-colored storms that developed in the 1940s, merged in 1998–2000, and became clearly red by 2006. Analysis of the data obtained when massive pieces of the comet Shoemaker Levy 9 plunged into Jupiter in 1994 has extended our knowledge of the Jovian atmosphere, and the space probe Juno revealed a number of smaller storms, each roughly the size of the earth, clustered at the planet's poles.

Jupiter has no solid rock surface. One theory pictures a gradual transition from the outer ammonia clouds to a thick layer of frozen gases and finally to a liquid or solid hydrogen mantle. Beneath its has been suggested that Jupiter may have a core of rocky material with a mass 10–15 times that of the earth. The spot and other markings of the atmosphere also provide evidence for Jupiter's rapid rotation, which has a period of about 9 hr 55 min. This rotation causes a polar flattening of over 6%. The temperature ranges from about −190 degrees Fahrenheit (−124 degrees Celsius) for the visible surface of the atmosphere, to 9 degrees Fahrenheit (−13 degrees Celsius) at lower cloud levels; localized regions reach as high as 40 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius) at still lower cloud levels near the equator. Jupiter radiates about four times as much heat energy as it receives from the sun, suggesting an internal heat source. This energy is thought to be due in part to a slow contraction of the planet. Jupiter is also characterized by intense nonthermal radio emission; in the 15-m range it is the strongest radio source in the sky. Jupiter has a huge asymetrical magnetic field, extending past the orbit of Saturn in one direction but far less in the direction of the sun. This magnetosphere traps high levels of energetic particles far more intense than those found within earth's Van Allen radiation belts. Nine space probes have encountered the Jovian system: Pioneers 10 and 11 (1973 and 1974), Voyagers 1 and 2 (both 1979), Ulysses (1992, 2004), Galileo (1995–2003), Cassini (2000), New Horizons (2007), and Juno (2016–).

Its Moons and Rings

At least 63 natural satellites orbit Jupiter. They are conveniently divided into six main groups (in order of increasing distance from the planet): Amalthea, Galilean, Himalia, Ananke, Carme, and Pasiphae. The first group is comprised of the four innermost satellites—Metis, Adrastea, Amalthea, and Thebe. The red color of Amalthea (diameter: 117 mi/189 km), a small, elongated satellite discovered (1892) by Edward Barnard, probably results from a coating of sulfur particles ejected from Io. Metis (diameter: 25 mi/40 km), Adrastea (diameter: 12 mi/20 km), and Thebe (diameter: 62 mi/100 km) are all oddly shaped and were discovered in 1979 in photographs returned to earth by the Voyager 1 space probe. Metis and Adrastea orbit close to Jupiter's thin ring system; material ejected from these moons helps maintain the ring.

The four largest satellites—Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto—were discovered by Galileo in 1610, shortly after he invented the telescope, and are known as the Galilean satellite group. Io (diameter: 2,255 mi/3,630 km), the closest to Jupiter of the four, is the most active geologically, with 30 active volcanoes that are probably energized by the tidal effects of Jupiter's enormous mass. Europa (diameter: 1,960 mi/3,130 km) is a white, highly reflecting body whose smooth surface is covered with dark streaks up to 43 mi/70 km in width and from several hundred to several thousand miles in length. Ganymede (diameter: 3,268 mi/5,262 km), second most distant of the four and the largest satellite in the solar system, has heavily cratered regions, tens of miles across, that are surrounded by younger, grooved terrain. Callisto (diameter: 3,000 mi/4,806 km), the most distant and the least active geologically of the four, has a heavily cratered surface. Themisto (diameter: 5 mi/8 km) orbits Jupiter midway between the Galilean and next main group of satellites, the Himalias. The Himalia group consists of five tightly clustered satellites with orbits outside that of Callisto—Leda (diameter: 6 mi/10 km), Himalia (diameter: 106 mi/170 km), Lysithea (diameter: 15 mi/24 km), Elara (diameter: 50 mi/80 km), and S/2000 J11 (diameter: 2.5 mi/4 km). These 14 inner satellites are regular, that is, their orbits are relatively circular, near equatorial, and prograde, i.e., moving in the same orbital direction as the planet. Almost all of the remainder are irregular in that their orbits are large, elliptical, inclined to that of the planet, and usually retrograde, i.e., motion opposite to that of the planet's rotation. (Jupiter's irregular satellites are distinguished from the regular by the spelling of their names, which all end in the letter “e”.)

Situated between the Himalia and Ananke groups is Carpo (diameter: 2 mi/3 km), which like Thermisto doesn't seem to fit into any of the main groups. The Ananke group comprises 17 satellites, which share similar orbits and range from 1.2 to 2.5 mi (2–4 km) in diameter except for two: S/2003 J12, Euporie, Orthosie, Euanthe, Thyone, Mneme, Harpalyke, Hermippe, Praxidike (diameter: 4.5 mi/7 km), Thelexinoe, Iocaste, Ananke (diameter: 12.5 mi/20 km), S/2003 J16, S/2003 J3, S/2003 J18, Helike, and S/2003 J15.

Like the Ananke group, the Carme group is remarkably homogeneous. It comprises 17 satellites, which share similar orbits and, except for one, range from 1.2 to 3 mi (2–5 km) in diameter: Arche, Pasithee, Chaldene, Kale, Isonoe, Aitne, Erinome, Taygete, Carme (diameter: 28 mi/46 km), Kalyke, Eukelade, Kallichore, S/2003 J17, S/2003 J10, S/2003 J9, S/2003 J5, and S/2003 J19. The most distant of the groups from the planet is the Pasiphae, which comprises 14 widely dispersed satellites that, except for two, range from 1.2 to 4.5 mi (2–7 km) in diameter: S/2000 J12, Eurydome, Autonoe, Sponde, Pasiphae (diameter: 36 mi/58 km), Megaclite, Sinope (diameter: 23 mi/38 km), Hegemone, Aode, Callirrhoe, Cyllene, S/2000 J23, S/2000 J4, and S/2000 J14. The odd orbits of the irregular satellites indicate that they were captured after Jupiter's formation. Because they are small, irregularly shaped, and clustered into groups, it is believed that they originated as parts of a larger body that either shattered due to Jupiter's enormous gravity or broke apart in a collision with another body.

Jupiter has three rings—Halo, Main, and Gossamer—similar to those of Saturn but much smaller and fainter. An intense radiation belt lies between the rings and Jupiter's uppermost atmospheric layers.

The Columbia Encyclopedia, © Columbia University Press 2018

Related Articles

Full text Article Jupiter
Astronomy Encyclopedia

Largest planet in the Solar System; it is 318 times as massive as the Earth and revolves about the Sun in an orbit with an average radius of...

Full text Article Jupiter
Atlas of the Universe

Jupiter, first of the giant planets, lies well beyond the main asteroid zone. It is the senior member of the Sun's family; indeed, it has been...

Full text Article Jupiter
Guide to Stars and Planets

Jupiter comes to opposition each year and is a brilliant object. Its yellowish disk is markedly flattened because of its rapid axial rotation,...

See more from Credo