Scientists Say That Jupiter Got So Large By Eating Baby Planets

Jupiter's Great Red Spot and Io, illustration

Photo: Getty Images

While Jupiter is the largest planet in our solar system by a hefty margin, scientists have never been able to explain how the gas giant managed to get so big.

Now, astronomers may have solved the puzzle, thanks to scans taken by NASA's Juno probe. While the planet's dense, swirling clouds of gas prevent most attempts to scan the interior of the planet, those clouds parted just enough for Juno to gather some data about Jupiter's core.

"Juno provided very accurate gravity data that helped us to constrain the distribution of the material in Jupiter's interior," Yamila Miguel, an astrophysicist at Leiden University in The Netherlands, told Live Science. "It is very unique data that we can only get with a spacecraft orbiting around the planet."

The new data showed there were high amounts of heavy elements and that Jupiter's core region accounts for roughly 30% of the planet's mass. Previous estimates said the planet's core accounted for just 10% of its mass.

The results of the study, which were published in the journal Astronomy and Astrophysics, provide evidence backing up the theory that when Jupiter formed 4.5 billion years ago, it accumulated its large mass by eating baby planets, also known as planetesimals.

The large space rocks, which are usually several miles in diameter, can form into full-size planets over billions of years.

Miguel hopes the new data could provide insight into how other Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune formed.

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