A new theory explains Jupiter’s perplexing origin

A new computer model solves a pair of Jovian riddles.

jupiter's surface
(NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI/MSSS/Kevin M. Gill)
  • Astronomers have wondered how a gas giant like Jupiter could sit in the middle of our solar system's planets.
  • Also unexplained has been the pair of asteroid clusters in front of and behind Jupiter in its orbit.
  • Putting the two questions together revealed the answer to both.

Jupiter's long been a puzzler to astronomers. Planet formation theory holds that a gas giant forms far away from its star then moves inward over time until it's in a tight orbit around the sun. Jupiter, though, sits right in the middle of our solar system's planets, between Mars and Saturn. And that's not all that's odd: There's an unexpectedly asymmetrical pair of asteroid clusters — known as the Trojan asteroids — preceding and trailing Jupiter in its orbit. The group in front is 50% larger than the one in back. The most widely accepted idea was that Jupiter formed near the Sun and moved outwards.

That's now been turned on its head by a team of scientists from Lund University who ran a series of models to try to identify a plausible origin story for Jupiter. They discovered that the planet and its clusters would be where they are under only one scenario: Jupiter forming way out near Uranus — as gas giants are supposed to do, after all — and moving slowly toward the Sun, attracting and accreting the asteroids that now form its core, with the leftovers trailing behind. Lead author Simona Pirani says, "This is the first time we have proof that Jupiter was formed a long way from the Sun and then migrated to its current orbit." Including the mystery of the asymmetrical Trojans in the simulations was the key.

Modeling history

Jupiter, right in the middle of everything.

(Christos Georghiou/Shutterstock)

The model that lands Jupiter where it is today, along with its thousand of Trojans, begins four times further away from the Sun than Jupiter currently orbits, just inside of Uranus' orbit. Jupiter first took form about 4.5 billion years back as an icy planetary seedling, an ice asteroid, no bigger than Earth. Somewhere between two and three million years later, the future giant began spiraling slowly inward toward the Sun, pulled by gases circulating throughout the solar system. It took about 700,000 years to get where it is now. Along the way, before it developed its gaseous atmosphere and massive size, Jupiter's gravity pulled the Trojans in — the researchers expect Jupiter's core to be composed of materials similar to the Trojans. They're believed to be rich with dark carbon compounds, and likely rich in water and other volatile materials beneath an outer layer of dust.

Lucy in the sky with Trojans

Trojan clusters held in place by the Sun and Jupiter

(Astronomical Institute of CAS/Petr Scheirich)

In October 2021, NASA plans to launch its Lucy mission to study the Trojans. It's believed that they're very old time capsules from the universe of four billion years ago. The craft will study seven of them: one from the solar system's main asteroid belt, and the remaining six from the clusters leading and following Jupiter in its orbit.

Those two Trojan groups are held in place at stable LaGrange points by the combined gravitation pull of the Sun and Jupiter acting together as a single centrifugal force acting upon them.

NASA has high hopes for the mission as chance to get a closeup look at the type of materials from which our planetary bodies formed.

Meanwhile, Jupiter's seeming a little bit less mysterious now, at least in terms of its origin. It may also be that ice giants Uranus and Neptune, as well as Saturn, have a similar history.

Why are so many objects in space shaped like discs?

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Golden blood: The rarest blood in the world

We explore the history of blood types and how they are classified to find out what makes the Rh-null type important to science and dangerous for those who live with it.

What is the rarest blood type?

Abid Katib/Getty Images
Surprising Science
  • Fewer than 50 people worldwide have 'golden blood' — or Rh-null.
  • Blood is considered Rh-null if it lacks all of the 61 possible antigens in the Rh system.
  • It's also very dangerous to live with this blood type, as so few people have it.
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China's "artificial sun" sets new record for fusion power

China has reached a new record for nuclear fusion at 120 million degrees Celsius.

Credit: STR via Getty Images
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink.

China wants to build a mini-star on Earth and house it in a reactor. Many teams across the globe have this same bold goal --- which would create unlimited clean energy via nuclear fusion.

But according to Chinese state media, New Atlas reports, the team at the Experimental Advanced Superconducting Tokamak (EAST) has set a new world record: temperatures of 120 million degrees Celsius for 101 seconds.

Yeah, that's hot. So what? Nuclear fusion reactions require an insane amount of heat and pressure --- a temperature environment similar to the sun, which is approximately 150 million degrees C.

If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it.

If scientists can essentially build a sun on Earth, they can create endless energy by mimicking how the sun does it. In nuclear fusion, the extreme heat and pressure create a plasma. Then, within that plasma, two or more hydrogen nuclei crash together, merge into a heavier atom, and release a ton of energy in the process.

Nuclear fusion milestones: The team at EAST built a giant metal torus (similar in shape to a giant donut) with a series of magnetic coils. The coils hold hot plasma where the reactions occur. They've reached many milestones along the way.

According to New Atlas, in 2016, the scientists at EAST could heat hydrogen plasma to roughly 50 million degrees C for 102 seconds. Two years later, they reached 100 million degrees for 10 seconds.

The temperatures are impressive, but the short reaction times, and lack of pressure are another obstacle. Fusion is simple for the sun, because stars are massive and gravity provides even pressure all over the surface. The pressure squeezes hydrogen gas in the sun's core so immensely that several nuclei combine to form one atom, releasing energy.

But on Earth, we have to supply all of the pressure to keep the reaction going, and it has to be perfectly even. It's hard to do this for any length of time, and it uses a ton of energy. So the reactions usually fizzle out in minutes or seconds.

Still, the latest record of 120 million degrees and 101 seconds is one more step toward sustaining longer and hotter reactions.

Why does this matter? No one denies that humankind needs a clean, unlimited source of energy.

We all recognize that oil and gas are limited resources. But even wind and solar power --- renewable energies --- are fundamentally limited. They are dependent upon a breezy day or a cloudless sky, which we can't always count on.

Nuclear fusion is clean, safe, and environmentally sustainable --- its fuel is a nearly limitless resource since it is simply hydrogen (which can be easily made from water).

With each new milestone, we are creeping closer and closer to a breakthrough for unlimited, clean energy.

The science of sex, love, attraction, and obsession

The symbol for love is the heart, but the brain may be more accurate.

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  • Dr. Fisher, professor Ted Fischer, and psychiatrist Gail Saltz explain the different types of love, explore the neuroscience of love and attraction, and share tips for sustaining relationships that are healthy and mutually beneficial.

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There never was a male fertility crisis

A new study suggests that reports of the impending infertility of the human male are greatly exaggerated.

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