Harvard University Predicts What Spacecraft Will Find on Jupiter

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Spacecraft Juno will be arriving on the surface of Jupiter in just a couple of weeks’ time.

Scientists are hoping that this voyage would unravel one of Jupiter’s deepest mysteries: how it generates a powerful magnetic field, which is the strongest in the solar system.

But while researchers are breathlessly anticipating the landing, a few scientists from Harvard University are turning their sights to a much closer prize that they think might explain Jupiter’s strange hydrogen levels, and that they are predicting will be what Juno will find on the planet.

In a room in Lyman Laboratory on Oxford Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a Harvard team of scientists conducted a five-foot long experiment. They then published their results in Physical Review B.

Mohamed Zaghoo, the NASA Earth and Space Science Fellow at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences said,

“This is planetary science on the bench. The question of how hydrogen transitions into a metallic state — whether that is an abrupt transition or not — has huge implications for planetary science. How hydrogen transitions inside Jupiter, for example, says a lot about the evolution, the temperature and the structure of these gas giants interiors.”

Zaghoo, Ashkan Salamat, and Isaac Silvera, a Thomas D. Cabot Professor of the Natural Sciences, conducted an experiment that would imitate the extreme pressures and temperatures of Jupiter.

They did this by squeezing a sample of hydrogen between two diamond tips (about 100 microns wide) and firing short but increasingly intense bursts of laser to raise the temperature.

The transition of the liquid to metallic hydrogen happens in the blink of an eye, just before the sample deteriorates, so the Harvard team decided to stop watching the product. Instead, they turned their attention to how the laser reacted.

The moment the liquid becomes metallic hydrogen, the lasers abruptly reflected.

Zaghoo said,

“At some point, the hydrogen abruptly transitioned from an insulating, transparent state, like glass, to a shiny metallic state that reflected light, like copper, gold or any other metal. Because this experiment, unlike shock wave experiments, isn’t destructive, we could run the experiment continuously, doing measurements and monitoring for weeks and months to learn about the transition.”

Silvera also said that this experiment serves as a “crucial guide to modern theory”.

The result of the study does not only hold the answers to Jupiter’s mysteries. It can also hold the solutions to questions about the solar system.

The study also has important implications and consequences on our planet.

Hydrogen is clean and abundant, and therefore is very useful for energy consumption and preservation. Zaghoo said, “If you can compress hydrogen into high density, it has a lot of energy compacted into it.”

Silvera also said,

“As a rocket fuel, metallic hydrogen would revolutionize rocketry as propellant an order of magnitude more powerful than any known chemical. This could cut down the time it takes to get to Mars from nine months to about two months, transforming prospects of human space endeavors.”

The group’s observation of the transition from liquid insulator to liquid metal is the first of its kind.

This breakthrough is greatly helpful, as many scientists have long been theorizing that the highly intense pressure and temperature on Jupiter turn its hydrogen (which makes up 90% of the planet) into liquid metallic hydrogen, which creates a very strong magnetic field.

Juno is still to reach Jupiter, but the Harvard team’s research, without a doubt, have opened up the planet first.

Rob Clark
 

SchoolCampus.org admin staff managing editor

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