The best way to explore a new world is to land on it. That's why humans have sent spacecraft to the Moon, Venus, Mars, Saturn's moon, Titan, and more.
But there are a few places in the solar system we will never understand as well as we'd like. One of them is Jupiter.
Jupiter is made of mostly hydrogen and helium gas. So, trying to land on it would be like trying to land on a cloud here on Earth. There's no outer crust to break your fall on Jupiter. Just an endless stretch of atmosphere.
The big question, then, is: Could you fall through one end of Jupiter and out the other? It turns out, you wouldn't even make it halfway. Here’s what would happen if you tried to land on Jupiter.
*It's important to note that we feature the Lunar Lander for the first half of the descent. In reality, the Lunar Lander is relatively delicate compared to, say, NASA's Orion spacecraft. Therefore, the Lunar Lander would not be used for a mission to land on any world that contains an atmosphere, including Jupiter. However, any spacecraft, no matter how robust, would not survive for long in Jupiter, so the Lunar Lander is as good of a choice as any for this hypothetical scenario.
First things first, Jupiter's atmosphere has no oxygen. So make sure you bring plenty with you to breathe. The next problem is the scorching temperatures. So pack an air conditioner. Now, you're ready for a journey of epic proportions.
For scale, here's how many Earths you could stack from Jupiter's center. As you enter the top of the atmosphere, you're be traveling at 110,000 mph under the pull of Jupiter's gravity.
But brace yourself. You'll quickly hit the denser atmosphere below, which will hit you like a wall. It won't be enough to stop you, though.
After about 3 minutes you'll reach the cloud tops 155 miles down. Here, you'll experience the full brunt of Jupiter's rotation. Jupiter is the fastest rotating planet in our solar system. One day lasts about 9.5 Earth hours. This creates powerful winds that can whip around the planet at more than 300 mph.
About 75 miles below the clouds, you reach the limit of human exploration. The Galileo probe made it this far when it dove into Jupiter's atmosphere in 1995. It only lasted 58 minutes before losing contact and was eventually destroyed by the crushing pressures.
Down here, the pressure is nearly 100 times what it is at Earth's surface. And you won't be able to see anything, so you'll have to rely on instruments to explore your surroundings.
By 430 miles down, the pressure is 1,150 times higher. You might survive down here if you were in a spacecraft built like the Trieste submarine — the deepest diving submarine on Earth. Any deeper and the pressure and temperature will be too great for a spacecraft to endure.
However, let's say you could find a way to descend even farther. You will uncover some of Jupiter’s grandest mysteries.But, sadly, you'll have no way to tell anyone. Jupiter's deep atmosphere absorbs radio waves, so you'll be shut off from the outside world— unable to communicate.
Once you've reached 2,500 miles down, the temperature is 6,100 ºF. That's hot enough to melt tungsten, the metal with the highest melting point in the Universe. At this point, you will have been falling for at least 12 hours. And you won't even be halfway through.
At 13,000 miles down, you reach Jupiter's innermost layer. Here the pressure is 2 million times stronger than at Earth's surface. And the temperature is hotter than the surface of the sun. These conditions are so extreme they change the chemistry of the hydrogen around you. Hydrogen molecules are forced so close together that their electrons break lose, forming an unusual substance called metallic hydrogen. Metallic hydrogen is highly reflective. So, if you tried using lights to see down here it would be impossible.
And it's as dense as a rock. So, as you travel deeper, the buoyancy force from the metallic hydrogen counteracts gravity's downward pull. Eventually, that buoyancy will shoot you back up until gravity pulls you back down, sort of like a yo-yo. And when those two forces equal, you'll be left free-floating in mid-Jupiter, unable to move up or down, and no way to escape!
Suffice it say, trying to land on Jupiter is a bad idea. We may never see what's beneath those majestic clouds. But we can still study and admire this mysterious planet from afar.
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