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Jupiter at Opposition III

March 9, 2016

Jupiter is known for greatness: its great mass, its great entourage of moons, and most of all, its Great Red Spot. There’s one characteristic, though, which isn’t so great: its rings. They’re far smaller and fainter than the rings of Saturn, another of the solar system’s giant planets. In fact, they’re so faint that they were discovered only a few decades ago.

Jupiter’s rings are of a completely different nature from Saturn’s. The main part of Saturn’s rings probably formed when a small moon was pulverized, either when it passed too close to Saturn or it was hit by another body. The rings consist of chunks of rock and ice, plus a large amount of dust.

Jupiter’s rings, on the other hand, are made almost entirely of dust. The dust comes from several of Jupiter’s moons. Space rocks hit the moons, blasting grains of dust out into space. The tiny dust grains then spread out around the planet to form rings.

There are four major rings. A couple are pretty narrow, while two others are fairly wide. None of the rings contains much material, though. And the material that is there quickly spirals down into Jupiter. That means the rings are being constantly fed by fresh impacts — adding to Jupiter’s not-so-great rings.

The great planet itself is in great view right now. It’s putting in its best showing of the year. It looks like a brilliant star, low in the east at sunset and scooting across the southern sky during the night.

Script by Damond Benningfield

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