Helium rain on Jupiter makes for strange days

UC Berkeley scientists unravel Jupiter atmosphere mystery

NASA Jupiter shot
In the strange and mysterious world of Jupiter, scientists were looking for an explanation for why the massive orb's atmosphere contained little neon, a common gas found on many planets. Now researching say they have found solved the mystery: Helium rain

In the interior of Jupiter conditions are so strange that, according to predictions by University of California, Berkeley scientists, helium condenses into droplets and falls like rain. On Jupiter the scientists explain the only way neon could be removed from the upper atmosphere is to have it fall out with helium, since neon and helium mix easily, like alcohol and water. 

Hot space projects produce cool cosmic discoveries 

Modeling planet interiors has become a hot research area since the discovery of hundreds of exoplanets living in extreme environments around other stars, researchers stated. NASA's star-gazing space telescope Kepler recently spotted five such exoplanets orbiting stars beyond our own solar system. 

The five planets are called "hot Jupiters" because of their deep mass and extreme temperatures, NASA said. They range in size from about the same size as Neptune to larger than Jupiter and have orbits ranging from 3.3 to 4.9 days, NASA stated. The orbs likely have no known living organisms because NASA estimates their temperatures to range from 2,200 to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, hotter than molten lava and all five orbit stars hotter and larger than Earth's sun.

Meanwhile, calculations performed by UC Berkeley post-doctoral fellow Hugh Wilson and Burkhard Militzer, UC Berkeley assistant professor of earth and planetary science and of astronomy suggest that at about 10,000 to 13,000 kilometers into the planet, where the temperature about 5,000 degrees Celsius and the pressure is 1 to 2 million times the atmospheric pressure on Earth, hydrogen turns into a conductive metal. Helium, not yet a metal, does not mix with metallic hydrogen, so it forms drops, like drops of oil in water, the scientists say. 

The helium droplets form about 10,000 to 13,000 kilometers (6,000-8,000 miles) below the tops of Jupiter's hydrogen clouds, under pressures and temperatures so high that "you can't tell if hydrogen and helium are a gas or a liquid.  They're all fluids, so the rain is really droplets of fluid helium mixed with neon falling through a fluid of metallic hydrogen, Militzer stated. 

This isn't the first time helium rain has been part of a planet's atmospheric mystery.  Helium rain was the explanation behind why Saturn appeared to glow excessively bright. 

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8

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