Jupiter is the king of the solar system. The largest planet in our family of worlds, Jupiter is three times brighter than Sirius, the brightest star. Jupiter’s prominence in our night sky led the Romans to name it after their chief god. It orbits the Sun about five times the distance from the Earth to the Sun and takes 11.9 years to complete its orbit.
The king of the planets is a gas giant. In other words, Jupiter is a ball of dense gas and it has no solid surface. Its core may be composed of rock forming materials, but it would only account for less than five percent of the planet’s mass. The planet may be 1300 times the volume of the earth and may have 318 times the mass of earth, but the density of Jupiter is only one fourth the density of the Earth.
The gases of Jupiter travel at high speeds around the planet. The common belief is that the movement of the gas and clouds is related to the high rate of rotation of the planet itself. The gas at the equator moves more quickly than the gas at the poles. The rapid rotation causes the gas to be thrown outwards against the pull of gravity. The end result is that Jupiter is not a perfect sphere, but is flattened at the poles and bulges at the middle.
The turbulent atmosphere of Jupiter gives rise to many, sudden storms. Jupiter’s storms are caused by bubbles of warm gas rising up from deep within the planet. The bubbles carry varying amounts of heat and create cloud systems that are contained by strong winds blowing in opposite directions on their north and south poles. The storms feed on smaller storms and drift to the east or the west.
The most famous storm on Jupiter is the Great Red Spot. The Great Red Spot is larger than three Earths put side by side. No one is sure how long the current Great Red Spot has existed. The earliest recorded report of a red spot on Jupiter was in 1664 by Robert Hooke. The cause of the Great Red Spot is not yet known. The storm might feed on smaller anomalies that are unfortunate enough to enter its path.
Jupiter also has many, many moons. In fact, it has sixty-three named satellites. The four largest, known as the “Galilean moons,” are Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. Forty-seven of them have been discovered since 1975.
Without a doubt, Jupiter is a fascinating planet. It also happens to be the largest discovered in our solar system so far. Pick up a science magazine sometime, and take a look at the discoveries made in recent years regarding Jupiter and its moons.