Astronomers from Rice University and China’s Sun Yat-sen University published a study this week in the scientific journal Nature proposing a head-on collision between Jupiter and a still-forming planet in the early stages of formation in our solar system.
Readings from NASA’s Juno spacecraft suggest that Jupiter’s core is less dense than was previously believed. “It was clear that there was a surprise in the internal structure of Jupiter,” said Rice Astronomer and study co-author Andrea Isella. “The internal core was more diluted than expected.”
This puzzled the team, so they ran thousands of computer simulations with the data they had. The results? “[The readings] could be explained if Jupiter had a giant impact with a massive planet of about 10 Earth masses.”
While this may seem esoteric, Isella suggests there are important implications: “What interests me more than what my research is about is really understanding how planets form. It’s not just the curiosity of knowing how Earth formed, or how other planets in the solar system formed. It is also understanding how planets like Earth sustain life.”
“For life to develop requires very specific conditions. We know these conditions exist on Earth, but we don’t know why, and we don’t know if these conditions exist anywhere else in the universe…If we could understand how Jupiter formed or evolved, this is a piece of the big puzzle of…whether there may be life anywhere else in the universe, or planets that might be suitable for us to live.”