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article imageScientists: Jupiter's 'heart' dissolving

By Abigail Prendergast     Dec 26, 2011 in Science
Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system, is losing its "heart" or inner core. Scientists have suggested a theory that the gas giant has been dealing with the dissipation of its core ever since its formation 4.5 billion years ago.
The largest planet in our solar system named for the mighty head deity in the Roman mythological pantheon is losing its inner core. According to New Scientist, Jupiter's "heart" is "dissolving like an antacid tablet plopped in water," and serves as an explanation as to why the core appears to be diminished while its atmosphere is more densely populated with heavy elements than previously anticipated.
Gas giants such as Jupiter - as well as Saturn - are believed to have began life in a solid form, concocted of rock and ice. Upon growing about 10 times the size of Earth, New Scientist describes, "their gravity pulled in gas from their birth nebula" resulting in an atmosphere composed mainly of hydrogen.
A nebula - in this case, planetary - forms when a main sequence or dwarf star develops into a red giant - which is a gargantuan star nearing the end of its life and emitting a yellow to orange to red color.
The star then gets rid of its outermost layers in a more or less symmetrical manner with the banished layers remaining energized via ionization from the ultraviolet radiation emitting from the newly formed planet's core. What is left is an aura of radiation known as the planetary nebula; and with a heavy Jupiter resulting in high amounts of gravity, that energy was pulled back toward it and became its thick atmosphere.
Concerning the issue of Jupiter's heart essentially wasting away, researchers Hugh Wilson and Buckard Mitzer of the University of California, Berkeley are proposing the theory that the dissolving core is by no means anything new. In fact, they suggest that it has been going on since Jupiter's formation some 4.5 billion years ago.
Utilizing quantum mechanics, Wilson and Mitzer set out to discover if magnesium oxide - a purported mineral in Jupiter's core - does in fact dissolve its atmosphere. The study concluded that Jupiter's gases do transmute the said mineral into a liquid.
"You can think of it as if you have some salt in the bottom of a glass," said Wilson. "Pour warm water on the salt and it will start to dissolve in the glass, with salty water in the bottom and less salty water at the top."
Scientists say that Saturn's core weighs an equivalent to roughly 15 to 30 Earths, where as by sharp contrast, Jupiter's core weighs a mere 10.
However, since it is not possible to duplicate the gas giant's extreme atmospheric conditions in a laboratory, Wilson and Mitzer were unable to perform any actual experiments.
Judging by the data regarding this phenomenon, Dave Stephenson of the California Institute of Technology suggests that planets even bigger than Jupiter can also be slowly but surely losing their own cores and at an even quicker rate. It could even indicate that these so-called "exoplanets" have had their cores dissolved entirely.
As far as Jupiter is concerned, Wilson says that it just could be a sign that - even after 4.5 billion years - Jupiter is just still forming, having not yet reached a state of stability.
The Juno Spacecraft - set to enter Jupiter's orbit in 2016 - will, with any luck, bring back crucial information regarding the large gas planet and possibly help scientists dig deeper into this mystery.
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