How Jupiter Tried and Failed to Become a Star

October 20, 2015 | Sarah Tse

Photo credit: NASA

Jupiter already gets a lot of attention for being the most massive planet in the solar system. But it could have been so much more, if not for a few missing features. Read on to learn how Jupiter came achingly close to being its own star.

Size does matter

As mentioned above, Jupiter is 2.5 times as massive as all the other planets in the solar system combined. If it had just accumulated more dust and gas during its infancy—approximately 80 times more—Jupiter could have achieved enough mass to ignite nuclear fusion in its core. Jupiter actually isn’t much smaller than some brown dwarf stars, which are the true failed stars that lacked enough hydrogen to sustain fusion.

Putting on airs

If not for its lack in size, Jupiter’s atmosphere would be perfect for stardom. It contains approximately 90 percent hydrogen and 10 percent helium—remarkably similar to the sun’s atmosphere of 75 percent hydrogen and 25 percent helium, which results from solar fusion. Even though Jupiter doesn’t create its own energy through fusion, it does emit more energy than it receives from the sun. Its core still radiates with heat left over from its formation at the dawn of the solar system.

A sizable entourage

When Galileo first spotted Jupiter’s four largest moons in 1610, he presented the planetary system as a sort of miniature solar system to support Copernicus’s heliocentric theory. That was probably the closest Jupiter has ever come to being considered a star with its own orbiting planets.

Speaking of those moons, Jupiter has almost 62 of them, and they’re as diverse as the planets of the solar system. Ganymede is even larger than Mercury, and generates its own magnetic field. In fact, astronomers speculate that Europa could potentiall harbor life. Not only does it have a vast ocean beneath its icy crust, but it also hosts clay-like substances that can be associated with organic molecules.

Natural magnetism

Jupiter has the strongest magnetic field in the solar system, competing with the sun’s. Its source is an ocean of liquid, electrically charged hydrogen deep in the atmosphere, where the temperature and pressure are strong enough to condense the hydrogen and mess with its electrons. The planet can sometimes even produce more powerful radio signals than the sun.

Dramatic histrionics

A Jovian year lasts almost 11 Earth years. For some time, astronomers thought that Jupiter might have some influence over the solar cycle. The sun goes through periods of high and low activity every 11 years, largely as a result of magnetic fields. The theory was eventually debunked, dealing yet another blow to Jupiter’s tenuous inferiority complex as it strives for stellar distinction.


If you enjoyed reading about Jupiter, find out why Pluto got demoted in How Pluto Lost it All

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