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Scientists find remains of baby planets swallowed by Jupiter

Jupiter

If left undisturbed, these space rocks could potentially have evolved into rocky planets like Earth or Mars (Photo: NASA)

Scientists have discovered that Jupiter’s interior is made up of the remains of baby planets that the gas giant once swallowed.

The findings come from the first clear view under the planet’s cloudy outer atmosphere.

Very little was known about the largest planet in the solar system, as telescopes have only been able to capture swirling vortex clouds in the gas giant’s upper atmosphere, blocking views of what’s below.

In the new study, researchers were finally able to see past Jupiter’s gas curtain using gravity data collected by NASA’s Juno spacecraft.

This data enabled the team to map the rocky material at the core of the giant planet, which revealed a surprisingly large amount of heavy elements, suggesting that Jupiter was devouring baby planets or planetesimals to grow to its current size.

Jupiter

Swirling vortex clouds in the gas giant’s upper atmosphere blocking view of what’s below (Photo: NASA)

Jupiter began life with the planet’s gravity pulling in rocks and gas from great distances. This consisted mainly of hydrogen and helium left over from the sun’s birth that made up the vast gas-filled atmosphere.

The study’s findings support a proposed theory that Jupiter’s core was formed by the absorption of many planetesimals — large space rocks spanning several miles.

These space rocks, if not disturbed, might have evolved into rocky planets like Earth or Mars.

“Since we can’t directly see how Jupiter formed, we have to put the pieces together with the information we have today,” lead researcher Yamila Miguel of the study told Live Science.

“Here on Earth, we use seismographs to study the interior of the planet using earthquakes,” Miguel said.

But since Jupiter has no surface to place such devices on, the researchers built computer models of Jupiter’s interior by combining data collected by probes such as Juno and Galileo.

Illustration of Jupiter.

An equivalent of 11 to 30 Earth masses of heavy elements were found in Jupiter (Photo: Getty Images/Science Photo Libra)

The probes measured the planet’s gravitational field at various points around its orbit. With this data, the team was able to map out small variations in the planet’s gravity, which allowed them to see where the rocky material is within the planet.

“Juno provided very accurate gravitational data that helped us limit the spread of the material in Jupiter’s interior,” Miguel said.

The researcher’s models revealed that there is an equivalent of between 11 and 30 Earth masses of heavy elements in Jupiter (3% to 9% of Jupiter’s mass), which is much more than expected.

Only Jupiter gobbling up smaller planets explained such a high concentration of heavy elements, Miguel said.

The new findings could change the origin stories of other planets in the solar system such as Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

MORE: Venus and Jupiter almost seem to collide in rare spectacle

MORE: Alien Life May Inhabit the Icy Shell of Jupiter’s Moon

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