Saturday, October 31, 2009

Understanding gas planets

If you’ve ever been outside late at night looking to the south, chances are you’ve already seen the largest planet in the solar system, Jupiter. You may have thought that it was just a bright star, and that is exactly what the ancients thought, except that they realized it moved in a way unlike the other stars. Imagine Galileo’s surprise, then, in 1610, when he pointed a telescope at the planet and saw its surface and four smaller bodies orbiting it. His discovery would cause a good deal of upheaval in the way humans viewed themselves in the universe, and Galileo himself would end up in trouble with the Church. All this because of that wandering star in the sky. All of the planets are found near an imaginary arc across the sky that we call the ecliptic. Long before astronomers knew that the terrestrial planets shared common features, they knew that two of the “wanderers” that they watched were different. While Mercury and Venus never strayed far from the sun, and Mars moved in a fairly rapid path across the sky, Jupiter and Saturn moved ponderously, majestically across the stellar ocean. In that motion, we had a clue that the outer planets—those farthest from the sun—were unique long before we had telescopes. Mercury, Venus, and Mars may seem inhospitable, forbidding, and downright deadly, but our sister terrestrial planets have more in common with the earth than the giants of the solar system’s farthest reaches. The jovian planets are truly other-worldly, many times larger and more massive than the earth, yet less dense: They are balls of gas that coalesced around a dense core, accompanied by multiple moons and even rings. In recent years, thanks to the Hubble Space Telescope and planetary probes such as the Voyagers and Galileo, the jovian planets and their moons have given up some of their mysteries.

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