Monday, November 30, 2009

Gas Planets Statistics

The most immediately striking difference between the terrestrial and jovian worlds are in size and density. It is useful to recall our rough scale: If the earth is a golf ball 0.2 miles from the sun, then Jupiter is a basketball 1 mile away from the sun, and Pluto is a chickpea 8 miles away. At this scale, the sun’s diameter would be as big as the height of a typical ceiling (almost 10 feet). While the jovian planets dwarf the terrestrials, they are much less dense. Let’s sum up the jovians, compared to the earth:
We have given a gravitational force and a temperaturenat the surface of the jovian planets, but as we’ll see, they do not really have a surface in the sense that the terrestrial planets do. These numbers are the values for the outer radius of their swirling atmosphere. One surprise might be that the surface gravity of Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune is very close to what we have at the surface the earth.
Gravitational force depends on two factors, you’ll recall, mass and radius. Although these outer planets are much more massive, their radii are so large that the force of gravity at their “surfaces” is close to that of the smaller, less massive Earth. Of the jovians, Jupiter and Saturn have the most in common with one another. Both are huge, with their bulk mainly hydrogen and helium. If you recall from our description of the early, developing solar system, the outer solar system (farther from the sun) contained more water and organic materials, and the huge mass and cooler temperatures of the outer planets meant that they were able to gravitationally hold on to the hydrogen and helium in their atmospheres.
The terrestrials consist mostly of rocky and metallic materials, and the jovian planets primarily of lighter elements. The density of a planet is determined by dividing its mass by its volume. While the outer planets are clearly much more massive (which, one might think, would make them more dense), they are much larger in radius, and so encompass a far greater volume. For that reason, the outer planets have (on average) a much lower density than the inner planets, But what of Uranus and Neptune—distant, faint, and unknown to ancient astronomers? While they are both much larger than the earth, they are less than half the diameter of Jupiter and Saturn; in our scale model, they would be about the size of a cantaloupe.
Uranus and Neptune, though less massive than Saturn, are significantly more dense. Neptune is more dense than Jupiter as well, and Uranus approaches Jupiter in density. Take a look at the following “Astronomer’s Notebook” sidebar to understand
why this is so.
Consider Neptune. Remember, density is equal to the mass of an object divided by its volume. While the mass of Neptune is about 19 times smaller than that of Jupiter, its volume is 24 times smaller. Thus, we expect its density to be about 24⁄19 or 1.3 times greater.
While we cannot yet peer beneath the atmospheric surface of Uranus and Neptune, the higher densities of these two planets provide a valuable clue to what’s inside.
Reflecting their genesis, all of the jovian planets have thick atmospheres of hydrogen and helium covering a core slightly larger than Earth or Venus. The rocky cores of all four of the jovian planets are believed to have similar radii, on the order of 4,300 to 6,200 miles (7,000 to 10,000 km); but this core represents a much smaller fraction of the full radius of Jupiter and Saturn than do the cores of smaller Uranus and Neptune— thus the higher average density of the latter two planets.
The atmospheres of the jovians are ancient, probably little changed from what they were early in the creation of the solar system. With their strong gravitational fields and great mass, these planets have held onto their primordial atmospheric hydrogen and helium, whereas most of these elements long ago escaped from the less massive terrestrial planets, which have much weaker gravitational pull. But here’s where it gets really strange. On the earth, we have the sky (and atmosphere) above, and the solid ground below. In the case of the jovians, the gaseous atmosphere never really ends. It just becomes denser with depth, as layer upon layer of it presses down.
There is no “normal” solid surface to these planets! As the gases become more dense, they become liquid, which is presumably what lies at the core of the jovian worlds. When astronomers speak of the “rocky” cores of these planets, they are talking about chemical composition rather than physical state. Even on the earth, rock may be heated and pressed sufficiently to liquefy it (think of volcanic lava). Thus it is on the jovians: gas giants, whose atmospheres become increasingly dense, but never solid, surrounding a liquid core. In the case of Jupiter and Saturn, the pressures are so great that even the element hydrogen takes on a liquid metallic form.

No comments: