Short Essay: What’s beneath Jupiter’s clouds?

For centuries, Jupiter has confounded both astronomers and outer space enthusiasts alike. The questions abound: Why does Jupiter emit more heat than it receives from the sun? What exactly is The Great Red Spot? Is Jupiter really a planet, or is it simply a failed star?

And my favorite question: what lies beneath the clouds?

When I was a student 20 years ago, I remember seeing the old textbooks depicting Jupiter’s surface as a meandering mountain range. Based modern knowledge, this is completely incorrect. Scientists generally describe Jupiter as a very enigmatic gas giant, one where underneath all those clouds are two “oceans”, one a gargantuan ocean of liquid hydrogen and the other an ocean of a substance completely foreign to earth: metallic liquid hydrogen. Hydrogen is theorized to reach a metallic state under enough pressure.

When visiting a Connecticut mall back in 1987, I happened upon a book that showed a terrifying depiction of what Jupiter’s “surface” might look like. The sky was black, save for the constant cackling of lightning overhead and the feeble attempts of the distant sun to poke through the thick atmosphere. The endless dark, yet clear, oily blue-green ocean of liquid hydrogen showed a world where no humans could ever possibly live.

We’ve tried to send space probes into Jupiter’s surface to learn more about it, and what Arthur C. Clarke postulated in 2001: A Space Odyssey came true. The staggering pressure of the Jovian atmosphere (estimated to be about three million times stronger than what we experience on earth) crushed the probes while they were still far from the “ocean”. This begs the question: will we ever know what lies beneath Jupiter’s atmosphere? Furthermore, is its core just a giant, earth-sized diamond, as Clarke also postulated in the book?

We may never know, but it’s always fun to speculate.

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