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Solar System Exploration
Gas Giant Interiors
Gas Giant Interiors (click to enlarge)

Gas Giant Interiors

Jupiter's composition is mainly hydrogen and helium. In contrast to planetary bodies covered with a hard surface crust (the Earth, for example), the jovian surface is gaseous-liquid, rendering the boundary between the atmosphere and the planet itself almost indistinguishable. Below the roughly 1000-kilometer-thick atmosphere, a layer of liquid hydrogen extends to a depth of 20,000 kilometers. Even deeper, it is believed that there is a layer of liquid metallic hydrogen at a pressure of 3 million bars. The planet core is believed to comprise iron-nickel alloy, rock, etc., at a temperature estimated to exceed 20,000C.

As with Jupiter, Saturn is mainly composed of hydrogen and helium and is observed to be of extremely low density. In fact, Saturn's mean density is only about two-thirds that of water. The Saturn atmosphere comprises, in descending order of altitude, a layer of ammonia, a layer of ammonium hydrogen sulfide, and a layer of ice. Below this, the saturnian surface is a stratum of liquid hydrogen (as in the case of Jupiter) underlain with a layer of liquid metallic hydrogen. It is believed that the liquid hydrogen layer of Saturn is thicker than that of Jupiter, while the liquid metallic hydrogen layer may be thinner. The planet's core is estimated to be composed of rock and ice.

Uranus is gaseous in composition, mainly comprising hydrogen and helium as in the case of Jupiter and Saturn. The planet atmosphere is mostly hydrogen but also includes helium and methane. The planet core is estimated to be rock and ice encompassed by an outer layer of ice comprised of water, ammonium, and methane.

The atmosphere of Neptune consists of mainly hydrogen, methane and helium, similar to Uranus. Below it is a liquid hydrogen layer including helium and methane. The lower layer is made up of the liquid hydrogen compounds oxygen and nitrogen. It is believed that the planet core comprises rock and ice. Neptune's average density, as well as the greatest proportion of core per planet size, is the greatest among all the gaseous planets.

Image Credit: Lunar and Planetary Institute

Credit: Lunar and Planetary Institute

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Last Updated: 19 Aug 2008