Science Podcasts

Question of the Week episode

Mon, 1st Jun 2015

Can I land on gassy planets like Jupiter?

Jupiter's Great Red Spot (c) NASA/Jet Propulsion Lab

This week we tackle Allana's question: If we were to travel to gas giant Jupiter, would we sink to the core? Or float straight on through? Heather Douglas put this to Dr Marc Rayman from NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab to see if he could clear the air...

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My understanding is that there is a solid core at the center of Jupiter (not sure about planets like Saturn). Even in Jupiter's case, the solid part is an incredibly small fraction of the planet. One could say that it is a rocky planet with an enormous atmosphere, but since there is so much "atmosphere" it really doesn't make sense to talk about it that way. chiralSPO, Mon, 1st Jun 2015

If there is no phase change ("surface") you can't land on it! alancalverd, Mon, 1st Jun 2015

It would not be difficult to land on Jupiter or any other planet.

If you should want to be able to take off again, that is an entirely different kettle of fish and a horse of a different color. Pecos_Bill, Tue, 2nd Jun 2015

I think the ship would get stuck somewhere in the upper atmosphere when the density of the ship equals the density of the surrounding gas. It would be like a hot air balloon kind of floating a few hundred meters above the ground (except theres no ground to see). Or like how some fauna spend most their life in a band of the ocean. Also you would get blown around at hurricane speeds in the gas bands. So while you can't land, you could float around on a cruise. SiempreFillInTheBlank, Tue, 9th Jun 2015

I agree that the ship would sink to the depth at which its density was about the same as the surrounding environment and go no further. However, if that ship is made of anything denser than hydrogen, it will have a very long fall.

Yes, the pressure increases and the hydrogen becomes a metallic liquid, but that really isn't very dense (Jupiter has an overall average density of about 1.3 g/cm3). And we should not forget that those incredibly high pressures will also act on the ship! The solid parts of the ship may not be very compressible, but the whole thing would probably crush like a tin can if you had any atmosphere (and would certainly sink to the core if there were no atmosphere on board!) chiralSPO, Tue, 9th Jun 2015

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