A cosmic, head-on collision between Jupiter and a protoplanet 4.5 billion years ago, could finally explain surprising readings made by NASA’s Juno spacecraft. NASA now believes this collision with the super-dense planet, can account for Jupiter’s strangely gassy inner-core. Jupiter’s centre, made up of solid rocks and hydrogen, has long perplexed astronomers.
But if NASA’s theory is correct, it could revolutionise our understanding about the solar system’s violent birth.
Rice University and Sun Yat-sen University astronomers believe the bizarre head-on impact scenario can explain the NASA space probe’s previously puzzling gravitational readings, which suggest Jupiter’s core is less dense and more extended that expected.
Professor Andrea Isella, Rice astronomer and study co-author said: “This is puzzling.
“It suggests something happened that stirred up the core, and that’s where the giant impact comes into play.”
Popular planet formation theories suggest Jupiter began as a dense, rock or ice planet that later developed its thick atmosphere from the primordial disk of gas and dust that birthed our Sun.
Professor Isella admitted he was initially skeptical when study lead author Professor Shang-Fei Liu first suggested the idea that the NASA Juno data could be explained by a cosmic impact that stirred Jupiter’s core.
This head-on collision mixed the dense contents of Jupiter’s core with less dense layers above.
Professor Isella added: “It sounded very unlikely to me, like a one-in-a-trillion probability.
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“But Shang-Fei convinced me, by shear calculation, that this was not so improbable.”
The research team ran thousands of computer simulations and found that a fast-growing Jupiter can have unsettled the orbits of nearby embryonic planets.
In every scenario, Liu and colleagues discovered a 40 percent chance Jupiter would absorb a planetary embryo within its first few million years.
The researchers also found protoplanets could have frequently collided in the nascent days of the solar system.
The study authors added: “We suggest collisions were common in the young Solar System and that a similar event may have also occurred for Saturn, contributing to the structural differences between Jupiter and Saturn.”
They also tested the theory that Jupiter’s fragmented nucleus was caused by weather erosion or the possibility that it always contained core gas.
However the study concluded a colossal cosmic collision was most-likely explanation.