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11.1 Exploring the Outer Planets

The outer solar system contains the four giant planets: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. The gas giants Jupiter and Saturn have overall compositions similar to that of the Sun. These planets have been explored by the Pioneer, Voyager, Galileo, and Cassini spacecraft. Voyager 2, perhaps the most successful of all space-science missions, explored Jupiter (1979), Saturn (1981), Uranus (1986), and Neptune (1989)—a grand tour of the giant planets—and these flybys have been the only explorations to date of the ice giants Uranus and Neptune. The Galileo and Cassini missions were long-lived orbiters, and each also deployed an entry probe, one into Jupiter and one into Saturn’s moon Titan.

11.2 The Giant Planets

Jupiter is 318 times more massive than Earth. Saturn is about 25% as massive as Jupiter, and Uranus and Neptune are only 5% as massive. All four have deep atmospheres and opaque clouds, and all rotate quickly with periods from 10 to 17 hours. Jupiter and Saturn have extensive mantles of liquid hydrogen. Uranus and Neptune are depleted in hydrogen and helium relative to Jupiter and Saturn (and the Sun). Each giant planet has a core of “ice” and “rock” of about 10 Earth masses. Jupiter, Saturn, and Neptune have major internal heat sources, obtaining as much (or more) energy from their interiors as by radiation from the Sun. Uranus has no measurable internal heat. Jupiter has the strongest magnetic field and largest magnetosphere of any planet, first discovered by radio astronomers from observations of synchrotron radiation.

11.3 Atmospheres of the Giant Planets

The four giant planets have generally similar atmospheres, composed mostly of hydrogen and helium. Their atmospheres contain small quantities of methane and ammonia gas, both of which also condense to form clouds. Deeper (invisible) cloud layers consist of water and possibly ammonium hydrosulfide (Jupiter and Saturn) and hydrogen sulfide (Neptune). In the upper atmospheres, hydrocarbons and other trace compounds are produced by photochemistry. We do not know exactly what causes the colors in the clouds of Jupiter. Atmospheric motions on the giant planets are dominated by east-west circulation. Jupiter displays the most active cloud patterns, with Neptune second. Saturn is generally bland, in spite of its extremely high wind speeds, and Uranus is featureless (perhaps due to its lack of an internal heat source). Large storms (oval-shaped high-pressure systems such as the Great Red Spot on Jupiter and the Great Dark Spot on Neptune) can be found in some of the planet atmospheres.

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