Jupiter formed in a geologic blink. Its rocky core coalesced less than a million years after the beginning of our solar system, scientists reported Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Within another 2 million or 3 million years, that core grew to 50 times the mass of Earth, reports Los Angeles Times.
Scientists have previously built computer models of the birth of Jupiter. But this study “is the first time that we can say something about Jupiter based on measurements done in the lab,” said study co-author Thomas S. Kruijer, a researcher at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California.
To probe the planet’s creation, experts sampled extraterrestrial material that happens to land on Earth — ancient meteorites.
Our solar system began as a disk of dust and gas 4.6 billion years ago. Of the planets, first came the gas giants, followed by the rock-and-metal terrestrial worlds like Earth. Jupiter is the biggest of the brood. Despite being mostly gas by bulk, it’s more than 300 times the mass of Earth. For that reason astronomers suspect the planet was the oldest, able to scoop up more material out of the disk before its younger siblings appeared.
The new study supports the idea of a firstborn Jupiter. When Jupiter formed, the growing planet swept up a great swath of gas and dust as it circled the sun.
What’s more, it acted as a barrier to shield the inner solar system from wayward meteorites. When the solar system was about 1 million years old, Jupiter’s gravity was strong enough to prevent rocks from crossing beyond its orbit, like a club bouncer who forces latecomers to wait on the sidewalk.
“At about 1 million years you have Jupiter getting big enough to cut off the inner solar system from the outer solar system,” said Brown University’s Brandon Johnson, a planetary scientist who was not involved with the new research.
Then, when the solar system was around 4 million years old, Jupiter grew to about 50 Earth masses and headed toward the sun. This lowered the bouncer’s velvet rope, allowing the outer asteroids to mix with the inner rocks. Today, they’re jumbled together in a single belt, which exists between Jupiter and Mars. Rocks from this mixture land on Earth, where scientists like Kruijer can study them.
The new study adds evidence to the idea that Jupiter temporarily split the population of meteorites in the solar system in two: those between Jupiter and the sun, and those beyond Jupiter. If a pair of inner and outer space rocks landed in your front yard, and you picked them up after they cooled down and the dust settled, you wouldn’t be able to spot a difference.