It’s made of gas, but more than twice the mass of all the other planets in our solar system combined. It is surrounded by 79 separate lunar companions, one of which is a prime candidate in the search for extraterrestrial life. It even has the name of the king of the ancient Roman gods. Jupiter seems to have everything – except cold rings.
For some strange reason, this alpha planet has rings that are to Saturn’s spectacular hoops what chopsticks are to tree trunks. Fragile. Insignificant. “Unlike Saturn’s ice rings filled with large chunks of ice and rock, they are made up of tiny dust particles,” according to NASA. Jupiter’s disks are so fragile that we didn’t even notice them until 1979, thanks to the agency’s Voyager 1 spacecraft and a bit of lucky, perfectly positioned sunlight.
But on Thursday, researchers who set out to understand why Jupiter has this crazy deficiency said they may have finally found an answer. Details of their findings can be found on arXiv, and will soon be published in the Planetary Science Journal, via a press release.
“We found that the Galilean moons of Jupiter, one of which is the largest moon in our solar system, would very quickly destroy any large rings that might form,” Stephen Kane, an astrophysicist at the University of California, Riverside, who led the study. research, said in a statement. “As a result, Jupiter is unlikely to have had large rings at any point in its past.”
In other words, Kane and his colleagues believe that the gravitational pull and sheer force of the moons orbiting Jupiter — especially the four largest in Galilee — would have obliterated any and all matter that tried to produce Saturn-like rings around the gas giant.
“Massive planets form massive moons, which prevents them from having substantial rings,” Kane said. This could potentially also explain why Neptune’s rings are also so light – although the blue orb’s halos are still a little more substantial than Jupiter’s from Earth’s perspective.
To reach their conclusions, the team essentially ran dynamic computer simulations of Jupiter’s orbiting Galilean moons, as well as Jupiter itself orbiting the sun. So they waited and watched to see how long it would take for some Saturn-like rings to form, if they did, and watched what happened when they started to take shape. “The results largely demonstrate the truncation of stable orbits imposed by the Galilean satellites,” the study states, “and the dynamic desiccation of dense ring material” within a specific region.
In some ways, it’s unfortunate that Jupiter’s moons have guarded impressive rings from the windy, peach-striped world — for scientists and amateur space fans alike.
First, if Jupiter had rings, they would appear brighter to us than Saturn’s, Kane said, because it’s so much closer. Saturn is almost twice as far from Earth. And second, rocky or icy rings can carry a lot of information for scientists looking to understand a particular planet’s past.
“To us astronomers, they’re the blood splatters on the walls of a crime scene. When we look at the rings of giant planets, it’s evidence that something catastrophic happened to put this material there,” Kane said. Before conducting the simulations, in fact, Kane had hoped that Jupiter had had some stronger rings for a long time, but perhaps lost them over time. It is possible that these rings are temporary, the researcher reasoned.
“It has long bothered me why Jupiter doesn’t have even more incredible rings that would put Saturn to shame,” Kane said, also mentioning the next step for the team’s research. It’s also about to be about planetary ring mysteries, this time of Uranus, another gas planet.
In essence, the study’s researchers think it’s possible that Uranus appeared to be tipped on its side because of a collision with another celestial body a long, long time ago. Based on Kane’s blood spatter crime scene analogy, they believe his rings contain secrets that will decode if the suspicion is correct.