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Magnetic fields

Each of the giant planets has a strong magnetic field , generated by electric currents in its rapidly spinning interior. Associated with the magnetic fields are the planets’ magnetospheres , which are regions around the planet within which the planet’s own magnetic field dominates over the general interplanetary magnetic field. The magnetospheres of these planets are their largest features, extending millions of kilometers into space.

In the late 1950s, astronomers discovered that Jupiter was a source of radio waves that got more intense at longer rather than at shorter wavelengths—just the reverse of what is expected from thermal radiation (radiation caused by the normal vibrations of particles within all matter). Such behavior is typical, however, of the radiation emitted when high-speed electrons are accelerated by a magnetic field. We call this synchrotron radiation    because it was first observed on Earth in particle accelerators, called synchrotrons. This was our first hint that Jupiter must have a strong magnetic field.

Later observations showed that the radio waves are coming from a region surrounding Jupiter with a diameter several times that of the planet itself ( [link] ). The evidence suggested that a vast number of charged atomic particles must be circulating around Jupiter, spiraling around the lines of force of a magnetic field associated with the planet. This is just what we observe happening, but on a smaller scale, in the Van Allen belt around Earth. The magnetic fields of Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, discovered by the spacecraft that first passed close to these planets, work in a similar way, but are not as strong.

Jupiter in radio waves.

Radio Emission from Jupiter. Jupiter does not appear spherical in radio light, but more like a football surrounded by bright, curved lobes and a bright, extended equatorial region.
This false-color image of Jupiter was made with the Very Large Array (of radio telescopes) in New Mexico. We see part of the magnetosphere, brightest in the middle because the largest number of charged particles are in the equatorial zone of Jupiter. The planet itself is slightly smaller than the green oval in the center. Different colors are used to indicate different intensities of synchrotron radiation. (credit: modification of work by I. de Pater (UC Berkeley) NRAO, AUI, NSF)

Inside each magnetosphere, charged particles spiral around in the magnetic field; as a result, they can be accelerated to high energies. These charged particles can come from the Sun or from the neighborhood of the planet itself. In Jupiter’s case, Io , one of its moons, turns out to have volcanic eruptions that blast charged particles into space and right into the jovian magnetosphere.

The axis of Jupiter’s magnetic field (the line that connects the magnetic north pole with the magnetic south pole) is not aligned exactly with the axis of rotation of the planet; rather, it is tipped by about 10°. Uranus and Neptune have even greater magnetic tilts, of 60° and 55°, respectively. Saturn’s field, on the other hand, is perfectly aligned with its rotation axis. Why different planets have such different magnetic tilts is not well understood.

The physical processes around the jovian planets turn out to be milder versions of what astronomers find in many distant objects, from the remnants of dead stars to the puzzling distant powerhouses we call quasars. One reason to study the magnetospheres of the giant planets and Earth is that they provide nearby accessible analogues of more energetic and challenging cosmic processes.

Key concepts and summary

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.

Questions & Answers

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