Shang-Fei Liu/Sun Yat-sen University

Cataclysmic collision could explain Jupiter’s fuzzy core

Jupiter harbors a deep mystery: Rather than the distinct core scientists expected, it has a fuzzy center, according to recent observations by NASA’s Juno spacecraft, which extends for up to half the planet’s radius.

One possible explanation is a cataclysmic head-on collision some 4.5 billion years ago between a young Jupiter and one of the many large protoplanets that likely populated the early solar system, planetary scientists report today in Nature. Such an event would have seen Jupiter absorb the protoplanet, which would have been 10 times Earth’s mass, causing their two dense cores to combine and diffuse after only 10 hours, as seen in the simulation above. Over time, cooling and winds could sweep some of the fuzzy core upward, explaining Jupiter’s puzzling enrichment in elements like carbon and nitrogen close to its surface.

An impact is not the only way to explain the diffuse core. It may have instead formed simply through erosion, the researchers say, or gas could have been a building block of the planet from its very start, rather than later on. But such a collision is plausible, as evidence now suggests the early solar system was a violent, impact-filled realm driven by the jostling of Jupiter and Saturn.

Many researchers suspect the tilts of several gas giants—including Uranus, which rotates on its side—were caused by such collisions. It appears Jupiter, although barely tilted, may not have escaped the barrage it helped shape unscathed.