All of the giant planets in our solar system all have rings around them. Saturn might be the planet that we associate with rings, but Jupiter, Uranus, and Neptune also have pretty sizable rings too. Astronomers learned about Jupiter’s rings back in the early 1600’s, and since then it has been studied thoroughly. Check out this guide to learn all about Jupiter’s rings.
Without Jupiter cleaning out the early solar system, the Earth would be pock-marked with meteor collisions. We would suffer from asteroid impacts every day. CNN studios would probably be a gigantic crater it if wasn’t for Jupiter. – Michio Kaku
Jupiter is the 5th planet from the sun and is the biggest planet in our solar system. It is comprised primarily of hydrogen and helium, with a possible core but scientists aren’t too sure about that. Our favorite gas giant has been known to astronomers and people for forever it seems. It was named by the Romans after the God Jupiter, who was the God of the sky; that name is deserved since Jupiter is the biggest planet in our solar system.
One of the most notable things about Jupiter is its giant red spot, located slightly south of its equator. It has been observed constantly since 1830 and has yet to go away. It was first spotted in the mid-1660s, but it isn’t known if the storm is, in fact, the same one that we know today. If it is, that means that the storm has been going on for at least 400 years. To put that amount of time into perspective, it has: outlived every single US president, “seen” both World Wars, watched colonists come to America for the first time, watched England become a massive superpower, and it may have even seen the first signs of exploration.
Jupiter’s moons are… well, different from what we are used to. In total Jupiter has a whopping 69 total satellites. No, these satellites don’t allow you to watch football while on the gas giant. These satellites are natural and most are extremely small (around 6 miles wide at most). The satellites are more than likely space debris and rocks that have gotten caught in Jupiter’s orbit.
Jupiter does have 4 large moons, what are collectively called “Galilean moons” because they were discovered by Galileo Galili in the early 1600’s. The names of the Galilean moons are Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto. Each of these moons is incredibly unique and are very distinct. Io is essentially a volcanic moon that is covered in sulfur. The pull from Jupiter actually gives Io a volcanic tide. Ganymede is the biggest moon Jupiter has (it is actually bigger than the planet Mercury), and actually has a magnetic field surrounding it. Callisto is covered in small craters, leaving astronomers to believe that it has been hit by space debris many times. Lastly, Europa is essentially a water world. The moon is covered in water and ice and has over twice the amount of water than Earth has. Europa is the star of Jupiter’s moons because it has the best chance of having some sort of life on it.
There are also various other moons that Jupiter has including some inner moons, but we will go over that shortly.
Missions to Jupiter
Even though we can’t actually land on Jupiter and explore it (hard to land on gas), we have done a few flyby’s that have looked at the planet. So far we have had 9 missions that have either flown by Jupiter or have orbited Jupiter. The most notable mission (besides Juno and Galileo) is the Voyager mission that gave us our first up-close look at Jupiter in 1979.
Voyager 1 and 2 photographed Jupiter along with its moons and rings, and also observed its magnetic field and even the amount of radiation that Jupiter exerted. The Voyager probes were the ones who actually saw Europa and Io up close, and that’s what sparked the fascination with Europa have possible life forms. It was also Voyager that discovered Jupiter’s rings, which was an amazing discovery for researchers and astronomers.
Juno is a current mission that NASA launched in 2011 to orbit Jupiter. It entered Jupiter’s orbit in July of 2016 and is studying darn near everything about Jupiter including its composition, magnetic field, gravity field, and even its magnetosphere. It is also tasked with learning about Jupiter’s core and what it is comprised of. Juno is currently investigating the great storm on Jupiter since we really don’t know much about it.
The Galileo orbiter was the first spacecraft we sent that orbited Jupiter, and it studied the giant planet along with the moons. It was actually the Galileo that discovered that Europa is covered in water and that Io was volcanic.
These missions are crucial for our understanding of Jupiter because we know so little about the planet. The more we can learn about our own solar system, the more we can start to learn about the universe and our place in everything.
Jupiter’s rings were discovered in 1979 by the Voyager 1 space probe. Our discovery of Jupiter’s rings was actually the third occurrence we had seen rings on a planet in our solar system (Saturn’s rings were discovered first, then Uranus was second).
We were able to further observe, and study, Jupiter’s rings with the Galileo orbiter. The Galileo was launched in 1989 and reached Jupiter in 1995. Its mission was to study Jupiter and its moons, and it ended up giving us quite a bit of information about the rings Jupiter has. Galileo reached its conclusion in 2003 when the probe crashed into Jupiter’s atmosphere.
With the help of Galileo and other space probes, scientists have learned that Jupiter’s rings consist primarily of dust and space debris. This is different from Saturn’s rings that are comprised of ice. Jupiters rings are very faint and are decently delicate, which is interesting considering that Jupiter is the biggest planet in the solar system.
Below is a video where you can see Jupiter’s rings up close and personal. The image is actually taken from the Spacecraft Juno, which is still up in Jupiter’s orbit learning all that it can about the gas giant.
The ring system consists of 3 parts: the halo section that orbits close to the planet, the main ring section, and lastly the Gossamer section that extends outwards from Jupiter.
The Halo Section
This is the innermost section of the Rings that is comprised of dust that surrounds the planets. This section is actually the brightest portion and is actually the thickest region of the rings.
The Main Ring Section
As you can probably tell from the name, this is the main portion of Jupiter’s rings. It is the thinnest section and is comprised of a large amount of dust and debris. The dust particles can be as old as 1000 years, or as young as 100 years. That means that new dust is constantly coming in thanks to collisions with meteors and large rocks.
Fact: This portion of the Ring is over 4,000 miles wide. That’s the length of driving from California to New York and back again.
The Gossamer Section
This is the outermost section of Jupiter’s rings and is not as defined as what the other 2 sections are. As with the other two sections, the Gossamer portion is comprised of fine dust particles that extend far out from the planet. The word Gossamer essentially means a thin substance, which is appropriate for this section because of the fine dust particles.
The origin of the rings is fascinating. Jupiter’s rings formed because of the moons it has. More specifically the innermost moons Amalthea, Adrastea, and Thebe are to blame. These moons have been hit by numerous meteors that crash into their surface and the resulting dust fragments and particles drift into Jupiter’s orbit, creating rings.
Now that you have some general knowledge about Jupiter, let’s go over some fascinating facts about the gas giant.
- It is 483,638,564 miles away from the Sun
- It has an orbit period of about 12 Earth years
- It is the 3rd brightest object in the sky
- 1 day on Jupiter is about 9 hours
- It was first recorded by the ancient Babylonians in the 7th century BC
- Jupiter’s storm is essentially a hurricane
- The storm is the size of 3 Earths
- When Galileo discovered Jupiter’s moons it proved that other planets can have something orbiting it
- Jupiter has no seasons
- In 1994 the Hubble telescope watched a comet crash into Jupiter
- It takes 45 minutes for the sun’s light to reach Jupiter
- Jupiter has its own Northern lights, called auroras, that is actually blue (ours is green)
Jupiter is an incredible planet that has captured our attention for years and will continue to have our focus long into the future. In the coming decades, many probes will be sent to Jupiter and its moons with the hopes of finding some sort of life. While we will never be able to have manned missions to Jupiter, the exploration of Jupiter and its moons are exciting and are a huge step towards learning about the universe that is around us.