The Gas Giants

The Gas Giants


Jupiter and Saturn are known as the gas giants of the Solar System. They are mainly composed of hydrogen and helium.


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A gas giant is a giant planet composed mainly of hydrogen and helium. Gas giants are sometimes known as failed stars because they contain the same basic elements as a star. Jupiter and Saturn are the gas giants of the Solar System. The term "gas giant" was originally synonymous with "giant planet", but in the 1990s it became known that Uranus and Neptune are a distinct class of giant planet, being composed mainly of heavier volatile substances (which are referred to as "ices"). For this reason, Uranus and Neptune are now often classified in the separate category of ice giants.

Jupiter and Saturn consist mostly of hydrogen and helium, with heavier elements making up between 3 and 13 percent of the mass. They are thought to consist of an outer layer of molecular hydrogen surrounding a layer of liquid metallic hydrogen, with probably a molten rocky core. The outermost portion of their hydrogen atmosphere is characterized by many layers of visible clouds that are mostly composed of water and ammonia. The layer of metallic hydrogen makes up the bulk of each planet and is referred to as "metallic" because the very large pressure turns hydrogen into an electrical conductor. The gas giants' cores are thought to consist of heavier elements at such high temperatures (20,000 K) and pressures that their properties are poorly understood.

The defining differences between a very low-mass brown dwarf and a gas giant (estimated at 13 Jupiter masses) are debated. One school of thought is based on formation; the other, on the physics of the interior. Part of the debate concerns whether "brown dwarfs" must, by definition, have experienced nuclear fusion at some point in their history.


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