The Planet Jupiter

The history of physics from ancient times to the modern day, focusing on space and time. Probes first travelled past Jupiter in the 1970s. Jupiter is the most massive planet in the Solar System, and has a number of moons that contain oceans of water and possibly even life. Jupiter's moons were discovered by Galileo in the 1600s.

Last updated on 5th August 2017 by Dr Helen Klus

1. Characteristics of Jupiter

Jupiter is the fifth closest planet to the Sun. It takes over 4000 days to orbit the Sun, this is almost 12 years, and one day on Jupiter is just under 10 hours long[1]. Jupiter is over twice as massive as all the other planets in the Solar System combined. It is visible from Earth, and sometimes appears as bright as Mars. As with Mercury, Venus, and Mars, Jupiter is named after a Roman god, the god of the sky, known to the Greeks as Zeus[2a].

Photograph of Jupiter.

Jupiter's southern pole, image taken by Cassini on its way to Saturn. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute/Public domain.

Jupiter is thought to have a solid core, which is surrounded by hydrogen and helium gas[2b]. Jupiter's Great Red Spot, which was first observed by English natural philosopher Robert Hooke in 1664[3], is now known to be a storm that is over three times the size of Earth[4].

Planets in the Solar system, sizes are approximately to scale. Jupiter is the largest planet, followed by Saturn.

The planets, sizes approximately to scale. Image credit: Dave Jarvis/CC-SA.

2. Jupiter's moons

Jupiter has a faint ring system and 67 moons, most of which are less than 10 km in diameter[5]. The largest of Jupiter's moons are the Galilean satellites - Ganymede, Callisto, Io, and Europa - these were discovered by Italian natural philosopher Galileo Galilei in 1610[6].

Composite image showing photographs of Jupiter's moons to scale.

A composite image of Jupiter and the Galilean moons from left to right: Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto (to scale). Image credit: NASA/JPL/DLR/Public domain.

2.1 Io

Io is the closest Galilean moon to Jupiter and has the third largest mass of the Galilean moons[7a]. The strong gravitational pull of Jupiter causes it to be geologically active, and it's thought to be the most geologically active object in the Solar System, with over 500 volcanic centres and over 100 mountains, some almost twice the height of Everest[8].

Volcanoes on Io emit plumes of sulfur dioxide, which can reach 500 km, over five times the distance to space from the surface of the Earth[9].

Io is mostly composed of silicate rock. Its surface is covered with sulfur, and sulfur dioxide frost, and it has a molten core made of iron and iron sulfide[10].

2.2 Europa

Europa is the second Galilean moon from Jupiter, it's also the least massive of the Galilean moons and has a diameter similar to that of the Earth's Moon[7b]. It has a thin oxygen atmosphere and a surface composed of frozen water[11]. Europa's interior is mostly composed of silicate rock[12], with an iron core[13]. Europa is also expected to contain a salt-water ocean, which extends for about 100 km below its frozen surface[14].

Artist's impression of Europa's ocean.

Artist's impression of Europa, with Jupiter and Io in the background. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Public domain.

2.3 Ganymede

Ganymede is the third Galilean moon from Jupiter. It's the largest and most massive moon in the Solar System. It's also larger than Mercury, although not as massive[7c]. Ganymede is primarily composed of silicate rock and frozen water[15a], but a saltwater ocean is thought to exist nearly 200 km below the surface, between two layers of ice[16].

The surface of Ganymede is covered in dark cratered regions and lighter regions, which are covered in ridges and grooves. Ganymede has a thin oxygen atmosphere and a liquid iron core[15b]. It's the only moon in the Solar System known to have a magnetosphere[7d].

Artist's impression of Ganymede's interior, showing its ocean.

Artist's impression of Ganymede's interior. Image credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Feild (STScI)/Public domain.

2.4 Callisto

Callisto is the furthest of the Galilean moons. It has the second largest mass of the Galilean moons and is about the same size as Mercury[7e].

The surface of Callisto is composed of silicate rock and frozen water. Callisto does not feel Jupiter's tidal effects as strongly as the other moons, and so it has no active volcanoes. This means that there is nothing to periodically fill in old craters, and so Callisto is the most heavily cratered object in the Solar System[17].

Callisto has a thin atmosphere composed of carbon dioxide[18]. It's thought to have a small silicate core, and a large icy mantle, with an ocean of liquid water between the mantle and the surface[19].

3. Missions to Jupiter

The first spacecraft to observe Jupiter, as well as all the Galilean moons, was NASA's Pioneer 10 probe in 1973. This was followed by NASA's Pioneer 11 in 1974, and Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, both in 1979. All of these probes were on their way out of the Solar System. Pioneer 11 came closest to Jupiter, flying within 34,000 km, and Voyager 2 was furthest coming within 570,000 km.

In 1990, NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) launched Ulysses, which came within 400,000 km of Jupiter in 1992, and within 120 million km in 2004.

NASA, the ESA, and the Italian Space Agency (ASI) launched the Cassini spacecraft in 1997, which passed within 10 million km of Jupiter on its way to Saturn.

In 2006, NASA launched the New Horizons spacecraft. New Horizons flew within 2 million km of Jupiter, and passed all the Galilean moons, in 2007, while on its way to Pluto.

NASA's Galileo spacecraft launched in 1989. The Galileo orbiter went into orbit around Jupiter in 1995, after flying by all of the Galilean moons. It released an atmospheric probe, which lasted for just under an hour. The orbiter was deliberately steered into Jupiter and destroyed in 2003, to avoid it contaminating any moons that may harbour life.

NASA launched Juno in 2011, and it entered into orbit around Jupiter in July 2016. Juno is currently observing Jupiter's gravitational and magnetic fields, and the composition and dynamics of its atmosphere, in order to help us understand how planets like Jupiter form.

The ESA plan to launch a mission to the Galilean moons in 2022, known as Jupiter Icy Moon Explorer (JUICE). The JUICE spacecraft arrive at Jupiter in 2030. It will then fly by Callisto and Europa, before orbiting Ganymede.

NASA also plans to launch a mission to the Galilean moons in the 2020s, which will focus on looking for evidence for life on Europa. This is known as the Europa Multiple-Flyby Mission.

Painting showing people in balloons exploring the clouds of Jupiter

Artist's impression of people exploring Jupiter. Image credit: NASA/JPL/Public domain.

4. References

  1. NASA, 'Planetary Fact Sheet', last accessed 01-06-17.

  2. (a, b) NASA, 'Jupiter: In Depth', last accessed 01-06-17.

  3. Falorni, M., 1987, 'The discovery of the Great Red Spot of Jupiter', Journal of the British Astronomical Association, 97, pp.215-219.

  4. NASA, 'Jupiter's Great Red Spot Viewed by Voyager I', last accessed 01-06-17.

  5. NASA, 'Jupiter: Moons', last accessed 01-06-17.

  6. Galilei, G. and Van Helden, A. (trans), 2016 (1610), 'Sidereus Nuncius, or The Sidereal Messenger', University of Chicago Press.

  7. (a, b, c, d, e) NASA, 'Solar System Small Worlds Fact Sheet', last accessed 01-06-17.

  8. Schenk, P., Hargitai, H., Wilson, R., McEwen, A. and Thomas, P., 2001, 'The mountains of Io: Global and geological perspectives from Voyager and Galileo', Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, 106, pp.33201-33222.

  9. NASA, 'Dashing through the Snows of Io', last accessed 01-06-17.

  10. NASA, 'Io's 'Sounding Signal'', last accessed 01-06-17.

  11. NASA, '10 Need-To-Know Things About Europa', last accessed 01-06-17.

  12. NASA, 'Europa Rotating', last accessed 01-06-17.

  13. NASA, 'Europa: In Depth', last accessed 01-06-17.

  14. NASA, 'Europa: Water World Infographic', last accessed 01-06-17.

  15. (a, b) NASA, 'Ganymede: In Depth', last accessed 01-06-17.

  16. NASA, 'Solar system's largest moon likely has a hidden ocean', last accessed 01-06-17.

  17. NASA, 'Callisto: In Depth', last accessed 01-06-17.

  18. NASA, 'Galileo Spacecraft Finds Thin Atmosphere On Callisto', last accessed 01-06-17.

  19. NASA, 'Callisto makes a big splash', last accessed 01-06-17.

Back to top

The Star Garden is a science news and science education website run by Dr Helen Klus.

How we came to know the cosmos covers the history of physics focusing on space and time, light and matter, and the mind. It explains the simple discoveries we made in prehistoric times, and how we built on them, little by little, until the conclusions of modern theories seem inevitable. This is shown in a timeline of the universe.

The Star Garden covers the basics for KS3, KS4, and KS5 science revision including SATs, GCSE science, and A-level physics.

Space & Time

Pre 20th Century theories

1. History of Constellations

2. History of Latitude

3. History of Longitude

4. Models of the Universe

5. Force and Energy

6. Newton's theory of Gravity

7. Age of the Universe

20th Century discoveries

1. Special Relativity

2. General Relativity

3. Big Bang theory

4. History of Galaxies

5. Life Cycles of Stars

6. Red Giants and White Dwarfs

7. Neutron Stars and Black Holes

Missions to planets

1. The planet Mercury

2. The planet Venus

3. The planet Earth

3.1 The Earth's Moon

4. The planet Mars

4.1 The Asteroid Belt

5. The planet Jupiter

6. The planet Saturn

7. The planet Uranus

8. The planet Neptune

Beyond the planets

1. Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud

2. Pioneer and Voyager

3. Discoveries of Exoplanets