On the early evolution of Jupiter

Hi there! Today we will discuss on how Jupiter formed. I guess you know Jupiter, i.e. the largest planet of our Solar System. It is a gaseous planet, which means that it is composed of a large and thick atmosphere, which surrounds a solid core. Jupiter is currently studied by the NASA spacecraft Juno. The study I present you, The primordial entropy of Jupiter, by Andrew Cumming, Ravi Helled, and Julia Venturini, simulates different possible paths for the accretion of the atmosphere of Jupiter. The goal is to compare the outcomes with the current atmosphere, to eventually discard some scenarios and constrain the primordial Jupiter. This study has recently been published in The Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

The planet Jupiter

Jupiter is the largest planet of our Solar System, and the most massive one. It is about 1,000 more massive than our Earth, and 1,000 less massive than the Sun. As such, it has a tremendous influence on the architecture of our System, particularly the small bodies. The Main Asteroid Belt presents gaps, which are due to mean-motion resonances with Jupiter. Jupiter is also responsible for the destabilization of the orbits of objects which pass close to it. A famous example is the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 which Jupiter tidally destroyed before its impact. You can find below a comparison between Jupiter, Saturn, and our Earth.

Jupiter Saturn Earth
Equatorial radius 71,492 km 60,268 km 6,378 km
Polar radius 66,854 km 54,364 km 6,357 km
Distance to the Sun 5.20 AU 9.58 AU 1 AU
Orbital period 11.86 yr 29.46 yr 1 yr
Spin period 9 h 55 m 10 h 33 m 23 h 56 m
Density 1.326 g/cm3 0.687 g/cm3 5.514 g/cm3

I compare with our Earth given our special connection with that planet, but the comparison with Saturn is much more relevant from a physical point of view. For gaseous planets, the radius correspond to an atmospheric pressure of 1 bar. I here provide a unique spin period, but the gaseous planets experience differential rotation, i.e. the equator may spin slightly faster than the poles.

You can see that our Earth is much denser than the giant guys. The reason is the thick atmosphere, which is less dense than a rocky body. Actually Jupiter is assumed to have a rocky core as well, which would be surrounded by hydrogen, which pressure increases with the depth.

Jupiter seen by Voyager 2 in 1979. © NASA / JPL / USGS
Jupiter seen by Voyager 2 in 1979. © NASA / JPL / USGS

Observers especially know Jupiter for its Great Red Spot, i.e. a giant storm, which is observed since the 17th century.

Jupiter is currently the target of the NASA mission Juno.

The mission Juno

The NASA mission Juno has been sent from Cape Canaveral in August 2011, and orbits Jupiter since July 2016, on a polar orbit. The nominal mission will be completed in July 2018, but I hope it will be extended (I do not have information on this point, sorry). Its goals are to understand origin and evolution of Jupiter, look for solid planetary core, map magnetic field, measure water and ammonia in deep atmosphere, observe auroras.

The  South pole of Jupiter seen by Juno. © NASA / JPL/ SwRI
The South pole of Jupiter seen by Juno. © NASA / JPL/ SwRI

It is composed of 9 instruments. Beside impressive images of cyclones in the atmosphere of Jupiter, it for instance gave us its gravity field of Jupiter with an unprecedented accuracy. Such a result permits to constrain the interior, see for instance this study, in which the authors modeled different interiors for Jupiter. They then compared the resulting, theoretical gravity field, which the one actually measured by Juno. They deduced that the core contains between 7 and 25 Earth masses of heavy elements.

The study I present today does not model the present Jupiter, but instead simulates the evolution of Jupiter from its early life to present. Once more, the goal is to compare with current and future observations. Let us see how a giant planet evolves.

The formation of a giant planet

There are two identified scenarios for the triggering of the formation of a planet:

  • Disk instability: a massive disk fragments into planet-sized self-gravitating clumps
  • Core accretion: solid particles collide and coagulate into larger and larger bodies until a body large enough to accrete a gaseous envelope.

The core accretion model consists of 3 phases:

  1. Primary core/heavy-element accretion: here you create the solid core,
  2. Slow envelope/gas accretion: in this phase, the solid core continues growing, while gas accretes as well,
  3. Rapid gas accretion: this is the final stage, where the core has already been formed.

Here the authors simulate the Phase 3. They are particularly interested in the heat transfer inside the atmosphere. There are two ways to transport heat in such an environment: by radiation, or by convection, i.e. transport of gas, which is a much more effective process. Moreover, convection permits the transport of heavy elements, and so a gradient of density in the atmosphere. This gradient of density would eventually stop the convection, the atmosphere reaching a kind of equilibrium.

Let us see how the authors simulated that process.

Simulations of different scenarios

The authors simulated the gas accretion of Jupiter using the numerical MESA code, for Modules for Experiments in Stellar Astrophysics. Yes, stellar, not planetary. But this is very relevant here, since a gaseous planet and a star are both made of a thick gaseous envelope.

These simulations differ by

  • The initial mass of the core,
  • its initial luminosity, which affects the heat transfers during the accretion process. This could be expressed in terms of entropy, which is a thermodynamical quantity expressing the overall activity of a fluid. It will then express the quantity of conductive transfers,
  • the initial mass of the envelope,
  • the temperature of the accreted material,
  • the time-dependent accretion rate. In some simulations it is an ad-hoc model, fitted from previous studies, and in other ones it is directly derived from formation models. The accretion rate is obviously time-dependent, since it slows down at the end of the accretion,
  • the opacity of the material, which is defined as the ratio of the gravitational acceleration over the pressure, multiplied by the optical depth. This affects the heat transfers.

And from all of these simulations, the authors deduce some properties of the final Jupiter, to be compared with future observations to constrain the evolution models.

The initial state constrains the final one

And here are some of the results:

  • Lower opacity and lower solid accretion rate lead to a low mass core,
  • if the gas accretion rate is high then the proto-Jupiter is likely to be fully radiative, i.e. no convection,
  • the rate at which the accretion slows down at the end determines the depth of the convection zone,


At this time, we do not dispose of enough data to constrain the initial parameters and the accretion rates, but why not in the future? Juno is still on-going, and we hope other missions will follow. For instance, stable regions in Jupiter’s interior can be probed with seismology. Seismology of giant planets would be pretty similar to helioseismology, i.e. this would consist in the detection of acoustic waves, which would be generated by convection in the interior.

The study and its authors

  • You can find the study here. The authors made it freely available on arXiv, thanks to them for sharing! And now the authors:
  • The website of Andrew Cumming, first author of the study,
  • and the one of Ravit Helled.

And that’s it for today! Please do not forget to comment. You can also subscribe to the RSS feed, and follow me on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest.

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