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What You Might Not Know About Hydrogen and Jupiter

Hydrogen is easily the most abundant element we know of in the universe. If it wasn’t for hydrogen and the properties it has, there would be no water and human and other life, as we know it, couldn’t exist. However, hydrogen is interesting, too.

Hydrogen is the simplest element, having a single electron and a single proton. It is also the lightest element. Our sun is made up almost entirely of ionized hydrogen. The planets, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, though far larger than the earth, are made mostly of hydrogen. In fact, if a large enough pool of water could be found and Saturn was put in that pool, it would float.

Lots of people know these facts and it isn’t uncommon for them to be taught in school. It becomes very interesting when hydrogen is compressed, though, as it does in the gas giant planets just mentioned. Jupiter is representative since it is so large and has such a strong gravitational pull.

When hydrogen is compressed, it first changes from an ultra-light gas to a liquid. On Earth, we produce liquid hydrogen by lowering the temperature of hydrogen to -423 F (-253 C), but on Jupiter, the intense pressure forms hydrogen without super-cooling it. 

Jupiter has a diameter of over 11 times the diameter of Earth and more than 1,200 earths would fit inside of Jupiter, so even though Jupiter is mostly hydrogen, the gravitational pull is intense; well over 1,000 times stronger at the ‘surface’ than on the surface of the earth. Note that there isn’t actually a surface on Jupiter, per se, but it could be referred to as the ‘cloud tops’. Still, that is an enormous amount of pressure and the pressure increases, the farther toward the center that we go.

So Jupiter has an atmosphere of mostly gaseous hydrogen. Under that is a vast and deep ocean of mostly liquid hydrogen, with the pressure getting stronger closer to the center of the planet. Then an extremely interesting thing happens. The pressure becomes so great that the liquid hydrogen becomes metallic hydrogen. This is still hydrogen, but it has properties of a metal. In particular, it is a super-conductor of electricity. 

It is believed that because of the difference in the speed of its spin, electricity is produced, accounting for Jupiter’s enormous magnetic field. As with earth’s much weaker magnetic field, the solar wind forces it into a sideways teardrop shape, but the magnetic field on Jupiter is so great that the ‘tail’ of the magnetic field extends beyond the orbit of Saturn. 

This is extraordinary. To grasp what this means, the orbit of the earth is about 93 million miles from the sun, on average. The distance between the orbits of Jupiter and Saturn is about 404 million miles, over four times our average distance from the sun. Yet the teardrop tail of Jupiter’s magnetic field extends farther than that distance!

This enormous magnetic field is made possible because of the amazing properties of metallic hydrogen. (Earth’s magnetic field is generated by a liquid outer core of iron and nickel rotating around a solid inner core of iron and nickel, and this is far weaker than Jupiter’s field caused by metallic hydrogen.)

  • Did you know about any of this?

    • Yes
    • No
    • About Jupiter, yes, about hydrogen, no
    • About Hydrogen, yes, about Jupiter, no
    • I’ve never even heard of metallic hydrogen before

What do you think?

11 points
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Written by Rex Trulove

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12 Comments

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    • I agree. It is supposed that there is a rocky core in the middle of Jupiter and even though hydrogen is so light, a 200-pound man would weigh over 400-pounds on the surface of that rocky core. The implications of that are staggering.

      • Particularily if you are on a diet 🙂

        I remember when we landed on the moon. I don’t remember which astronaut it was that took a golf ball and a club, but even with the inhibited swing, that ball carried a long way!!!

        • Yes, that was Alan Shepard and he became the first man to hit a golfball on another world. An astrophysicist worked out how far he probably sent the golfball, too: About 2.5 miles! Assuming that he hit the ball right, it also likely took about 70 seconds for it to hit the lunar surface again.

          I don’t play golf and I don’t watch the sport, but even I can appreciate how extraordinary that is. On Earth, a few hundred yards would be a distance shot. On the surface of the rocky core of Jupiter, it is doubtful that an astronaut could even lift a golf club, much less, hit a golfball.

        • Of course, on Earth, the maximum that a golfball can weigh is 1.62 ounces. On the moon, that golfball would have weighed about .62 ounces. It also means, though, that Alan Shepard was not only the first person to hit a golfball on another world, he also has the record for the longest golf drive in history, easily eclipsing the 515-yard drive by Mike Astin; the longest golf drive on Earth.

    • I love trivia about the solar system, the stars, and so on. I firmly believe that the people who don’t enjoy science have simply never been presented with how fascinating it all is. It all amounts to the presentation, more than the simple facts.

    • Jupiter is huge. Not counting the sun, three-quarters of the mass found in our solar system, counting all the other planets, all the moons, all the asteroids, and all the comets, is found in Jupiter. In other words, everything else in our solar system except the sun only accounts for about a quarter of the mass of the system.

      In fact, that also says a lot about the mass of our sun. About 99% of the mass of our solar system is in the sun if the sun is counted. As huge as Jupiter is, it is tiny compared to our sun, which is actually a remarkably smallish to average-sized star.

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