Updated: May 30
At the center of the Solar System is the sun, and around it orbits 8 planets including Earth. The largest planet in our solar system is the gas giant Jupiter. Much of what we know about Jupiter is through scientific observation since its first telescopic discovery in 1610, but there is much about it that remains a mystery even after centuries.
In this post, you will learn about the largest gas giant in the Solar System. Discover what Jupiter is made of, how far it is from Earth, interesting facts and stats, astrophotography and observation tips, as well as information about the Jovian missions and the Galilean Moons.
The Planet Jupiter
Jupiter is the fifth planet from the sun and is the first one you would find after traversing the Asteroid Belt in our Solar System. It is one of the Outer Planets along with Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. All four planets are also gas giant-type planets meaning they are primarily composed of gases. Of all the planets in the Solar System, Jupiter is the largest.
Who was Jupiter Named after?
Jupiter was "discovered," on paper, in 1610 when Galileo Galilei pointed a telescope at it for the first time. However, the planet has been noticed since ancient times. Early astronomers had an affinity for naming things after popular figures of their time. It's comparable to how prominent pop culture is in our time! Many of the earliest observers of the night sky came from Italy and Greece, so you may or may not have noticed that many mythological names are used in astronomy. And, of course, the "king" and largest of all planets was named after the king of Roman gods, Jupiter.
In Roman mythology, Jupiter was said to have been a sky god. He was most recognized by the symbols of a thunderbolt and an eagle. To Romans, Jupiter was the equivalent of the Greek god, Zeus, who also wielded a thunderbolt and was the god of gods.
In Greek mythology, Zeus also went by the name Iuppiter and was brother to Neptune and Pluto - who are the Roman versions of Poseidon and Hades. All three were the kings of different worlds:
Zeus was the king of the Sky
Poseidon was the king of the Water
Hades was the king of the Underworld
These stories helped astronomers remember celestial objects. Jupiter was definitely a fitting name for the king of all planets.
Size and Mass
At a radius of 43,440 miles (69,911 kilometers), this gas-giant planet is 11 times wider than Earth. NASA exemplified it best by comparing its massive size to our planet noting, "If Earth were the size of a nickel, Jupiter would be about as big as a basketball." That's huge!
It goes without saying, but Jupiter's mass is also bigger than the Earth's. Using 1 Earth as a unit of measurement, it would take 318 Earths to equal the mass of Jupiter. If you were to fill up the volume of Jupiter with Earth, it would take 1,321 of them.
Fun fact: The planet Jupiter has 300 times more mass than Earth, it is less dense because of its gaseous atmosphere!
With a diameter of approximately 86,881 miles, Jupiter is about 2.5 times more massive than all the other planets in our Solar System combined. That means it has a significant gravitational influence over surrounding celestial bodies. Its powerful magnetic field, the strongest in the Solar System, creates a remarkable feature because it traps charged particles forming spectacular aurorae visible in the planet's outer atmosphere.
Distance from the Sun
Jupiter is 484 million miles away from the sun, or 778 million kilometers! In astronomical units (AU), it is located 5.2 AU from the sun. To provide context, Earth - the third planet from the sun, is 1 AU away from the sun (approximately 93 million miles or 150 million kilometers).
It takes sunlight about 8 minutes to reach the surface of Earth, but it's much longer for the fifth planet and takes... 43 minutes! It's safe to say that it's much colder there - but continue reading on to find out just how cold.
You can read our Planets in Order from the Sun guide to learn more about all planets.
Time, Rotation, and Orbit
Let's imagine that we traveled to Jupiter. What's a day like in the life of an inhabitant?
One day on Jupiter - or a Jovian day - is not the same as on Earth. Using measurements we are familiar with, one day on Jupiter is equal to 9.93 Earth hours. Needless to say, time moves fast there compared to our home planet!
Jupiter's rotation is the fastest of all the planets in the Solar System. The planet fully rotates on its axis about every 10 hours. That's about 2.5 times faster than the Earth which rotates once every 24 hours.
However, Jupiter's rotational period is not constant. Scientists have observed fluctuations in the planet's rotation, likely caused by turbulence, in its atmosphere. There are multiple cloud layers of the planet that rotate at different speeds complicating its rotational dynamics further.
Speaking of speed - Jupiter has a rapid surface speed too! If you settled yourself at the equator of the planet, you'd be moving at 22,000 mph while standing. For comparison, on the surface of Earth, we "move" at 1,000 mph while idle. If you stood up right now, it wouldn't feel like you're moving - but you are! So you can imagine how hectic it would be for an earthling on Jupiter's surface! If it has one...
NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio has a great video example of how fast the planet rotates in comparison to Earth. You can see it above.
Notice how fast Jupiter rotates in comparison with the Earth!
Jupiter's orbital period is equivalent to 11.86 years! We know that a day flies by, but it takes significantly longer to complete one year. When you think about it, one year means a full orbit around the sun ending in the same position that the planet started from.
If you were a baby born on Jupiter, your first birthday (a full orbit) equates to being nearly 12 years old on Earth!
Additionally, Jupiter's orbit is elliptical meaning it is not a perfect circle, but a stretched-out oval shape. Part of the reason why is that Jupiter does not actually orbit the sun - it orbits an empty spot near the sun called the Sol-Jupiter barycenter.
This elongated orbit causes Jupiter's distance from the sun to vary significantly throughout a Jovian year. At its closest approach to the sun or its perihelion, Jupiter is about 466 million miles (750 million kilometers) away from the sun. At its furthest point, also called the aphelion, the planet is roughly 507 million miles (817 million kilometers) away.
All in all, Jupiter's time and rotation are much faster than what we're used to on Earth. While the days are shorter and the surface speed is extreme, the same cannot be said about what a year is like.12 Earth years equating to 1 Jovian year is a very long time! Although the length of a year on Jupiter might be difficult to comprehend, it's humbling to consider the rate we rotate and travel around the sun is just perfect.
Can You See Jupiter with a Telescope?
Yes, Jupiter is easy to find with a telescope and is one of the coolest planets to observe in the sky! Through an eyepiece you can see what makes Jupiter so unique, its colorful bands and the Great Red Spot, but also its bright moons! When pointing your telescope at Jupiter you might be able to make out several small, bright dots around it and those are its moons. It's so humbling to see them for the first time through a telescope.
How to Observe with a Telescope
If you are searching for a telescope to look at Jupiter but aren't sure which one to get, we have a few to recommend that'll last a lifetime! Don't fall into the traps sold by big box stores.
When it comes to the best telescope to view Jupiter and other planets, we recommend an 8", 10", or 12" Dobsonian. These telescopes are built for visual astronomy and excel at viewing planets (and the moon!).
For a complete beginner, the 8" Dobsonian (like the XT8 pictured here) is the best choice as it is slightly smaller and lighter than the other two. It makes viewing planets less frustrating to set up and move around too.
Dobsonian telescopes are best used for visual observations, but with the right equipment, they can also be great for taking pictures
Can you take a Picture of Jupiter from Earth?
Aside from being one of the best planets to observe, Jupiter is also fun to photograph! Unlike the other planets, Jupiter is large and full of details that can be captured on camera.
Would you believe it if we told you that you can take pictures of Jupiter from your backyard? Or that you can take a picture of Jupiter without a telescope?
The image you see here was taken with an inexpensive older DSLR camera and a basic telephoto lens at 300mm of focal length. Sure, you cannot see details of the planet, but you can see the moons which are super cool considering this was shot without a telescope!
If you make the decision to purchase a telescope, you can improve the quality of your images and get a much more impressive result over time. The picture below was taken from our backyard in Las Vegas with a telescope. There are two ways you can take pictures of planets through a telescope:
By taking individual pictures and keeping the best one (usually the easiest option and done using a DSLR or mirrorless camera)
By recording a video and stacking the best frames into one image (this achieves the best results but is an advanced technique, often done with planetary-dedicated cameras)
If you purchased a telescope like the one listed above and own a DSLR or mirrorless camera, you can attach it to your telescope (the camera replaces the eyepiece) and snap away! Even without practice, you should be able to get a beautiful picture of the planet.
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You've learned about Jupiter's stats and what a day in the life of a Jovian inhabitant would be like, so now it is time for a test of knowledge!
If it's been a while since science class, or it's your first time learning about Jupiter, you are sure to discover something new!
Read on to find out how Jupiter was formed, its age, composition, and more.
Formation and Age
Approximately 4.5 billion years ago, the Solar System came into existence with the explosive creation of the sun. After igniting, the sun expelled matter providing the right conditions for planets to take shape. It was about 3-4 million years later that Jupiter formed taking most of the mass that existed in the system.
Jupiter is thought to be the first planet formed. It's theorized that when Jupiter was forming, it may have once had a solid core which created a gravitational pull attracting nearby matter. As Jupiter gained mass, its gravity is believed to have increased intensely, collecting much of the expelled hydrogen and helium from the sun. As a result, its mass grew to more than twice the other planets' masses combined.
Can Jupiter Support Life?
No, Jupiter cannot support life. Its environment cannot sustain life as we understand it because conditions are simply too extreme. Jupiter’s temperature and atmosphere make it difficult for life to begin or acclimate to. On top of that, Jupiter is a gas giant so it would not be possible for life to thrive there.
However, that might not be the case for some of Jupiter's moons. Several of its moons are contenders, and it's believed that Europa might be the most likely candidate to sustain organisms. Water exists beneath its cold, icy surface - so the potential for life is highest on this Galilean moon!
Learn more about each of the Galilean moons further below.
Composition and Structure
What is Jupiter Made of?
We know that most of Jupiter's matter came from the sun, so it is not a surprise that it is mostly comprised of hydrogen and helium! It's theorized that Jupiter could have been a star like the sun, but the planet did not ignite. While traces of other elements, such as ammonium and methane, have been found in its outer atmosphere, they total about 5%.
Jupiter is mostly made of gas and this is much of what we see from an outside perspective. Below the atmosphere remains a mystery...
And so, curious minds wonder: what would it be like to land on Jupiter? Well... you can't.
The Planet Jupiter's Structure
The journey to Jupiter's core is different from what you would experience with Earth.
For comparison, if you were to travel to Earth's core from space, you would pass through the atmosphere, touch down on a solid surface (land) or on a liquid (water), and further past the crust and mantle, find the outer core of hot liquid magma, until you reach an intensely hot inner core of solid material.
On Jupiter, you would pass a highly volatile, reactive, and stormy outer and inner atmosphere. It would be a treacherous journey through the clouds and, if there is a surface, you would likely meet it by way of a sea of hydrogen. The sea is thought to have formed because of the atmospheric pressure and increased temperature near its core. Because of its massive size, Jupiter is thought to hold the largest ocean in the Solar System. Below that "surface," you might traverse a thick, molten center before eventually reaching its center. It is uncertain what the true center of Jupiter is like because it may or may not be the same as Earth. Therefore, landing on Jupiter is unlikely.
It is hypothesized that Jupiter's center could either be a solid core or a "super-hot and dense soup," as described by NASA. We mentioned previously, that the planet Jupiter may have started out with a solid core because it formed a gravitational pull that helped it gather mass and allowed it to grow as large as it did. And, perhaps, as a result, it might have become so pressurized that the core changed form - but again, this is just conjecture. For now, its true core remains a mystery to all.
What we do know is that Jupiter has an intense magnetic field that is 16 to 54 times more powerful than Earth.
Its magnetic charge goes in the same direction that the planet rotates which gives the particles in its atmosphere an electric charge, according to NASA. The charge creates radiation so strong it impacts passing spacecraft and some of Jupiter's moons. Perhaps the most beautiful outcome of such a fierce magnetic field is the aurorae found at Jupiter's poles.
What is the Surface of Jupiter Like?
Another mysterious thing about Jupiter is that we don't know what its surface looks like. We have no vision of the planet beyond the exterior of the clouds seen from Earth. Sadly, we may never know because of how extreme Jovian weather is.
However, modern technology has helped scientists study the planet in ways earlier astronomers couldn't, and they have been able to make discoveries through closer observation via better telescopes, orbiters, and space probes.
What is the Atmosphere Like?
Jupiter is classified as a gas giant for a reason - because it's full of gas! Unlike the sun, which is also full of gas and ignited, Jupiter is very cold. Its distance from our star also makes the temperature significantly colder than the Inner Planets. Jupiter's "surface" temperature is -160 degrees Fahrenheit (-110 Celcius).
Not only is the planet cold, but it's also subject to neverending stormy weather from its "surface" to the troposphere. The wind speed on Jupiter reaches more than 400 miles per hour with faster upper atmosphere winds, so it's unlikely that anything can live in or survive passing through without harm. The winds are believed to be the result of a reaction between the hydrogen and helium swirling in the atmosphere, combined with the heat emanating from the center of the planet. Jupiter's conditions are just right for creating long-lasting storms.
What's interesting about the winds is that they create the bands seen on Jupiter's exterior. There are two types of bands: light-colored zones and dark-colored belts. All bands are parallel to the equator of the planet and the only difference between the two is that they signify different temperatures. Light means that it's cooler and dark means it's warmer, and it's likely a result of the amount of ammonium ice found in the bands.
Speaking of temperature, what can be said about the planet Jupiter's weather?
Axis and Weather
The fifth planet sits at 3 degrees on its axis. A planet's axis is the imaginary line that runs from its north to south pole. That means Jupiter has an axis that is almost perfectly straight. What does that mean exactly? It means that seasons are practically non-existent.
For context, the Earth's axis is tilted at 23.5 degrees and we experience four seasons: Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter. Earth is split into two hemispheres - north and south - which experience opposite seasons as a consequence of the heavy tilt. Even more interesting, it also produces different weather patterns on both hemispheres and all of this occurs while Earth orbits the sun. Earth's tilted axis is the reason why we have such diverse weather and seasons, and the weather is somewhat predictable depending on the time of year.
Jupiter's nearly perfect zero axis once indicated that it had no changing seasons. However, according to a study reported on by Space, Jupiter's weather appears cyclical, it just takes a long time to change. The 40-year study confirmed that there is somewhat of a weather pattern. When one hemisphere becomes warmer, the opposite occurs in its other hemisphere. This is described as "teleconnection" which is similar to the La Niña / El Niño weather cycle on Earth. Pretty neat!
What does Jupiter Look Like?
Jupiter is one of the most identifiable planets in the Solar System! Its look is very different from the other planets, but it's also highly recognized because of its notable markings. Two of its most notable features are its stripes and the famous Great Red Spot.
The Gas Planet's Stripes
The visible bands on the planet Jupiter are swirling winds that are interacting endlessly. These jet streams circle the planet creating the lovely appearance of stripes.
These bands could be seen by early astronomers, and they probably didn't realize they were looking at distant storms. If you were to point a telescope to Jupiter tonight, you'd see stripes on the planet, and every time you do - they are unique. Jupiter's look is not permanent but generally appears the same.
Over time the planet has slightly changed color with some smaller markings that have disappeared and come back. Of the colors that you see on Jupiter, the lighter bands seem to indicate cooler areas while the reddish brown colors indicate warmer temperatures.
What is most surprising about Jupiter is that underneath the outer atmosphere cloud cover, powerful storms have been raging on for a long time! While the planet's look has changed slightly over the years, one thing has stayed consistent - a certain iconic, rust-colored feature.
The Great Red Spot
One of the most peculiar anomalies of Jupiter is its red spot. Seen from Earth, this impossible-to-miss mark catches your eye when viewing images of the planet.
Not only is it a point of interest, but it also happens to be a storm that has been persistently turning for perhaps centuries!
The Great Red Spot is an anticyclonic storm - meaning it turns in the opposite direction that the planet is turning. This counter-clockwise phenomenon is Jupiter's beauty mark, so to speak, and it certainly draws the eye because of its color. The red color is said to come from chemicals from deep within the planet, or the amount of ammonia in the clouds that has risen high into the atmosphere, but it's not certain.
Some sources note that the spot has been observed by humankind from as early as 1665, and if they are to be believed, it means the storm has existed for over 300 years. At the very least, the Great Red Spot has been cataloged through observation for over a century - and that is a long time for a storm to persist! The gigantic storm has speeds of 400 mph, and it can be viewed from Earth with a large enough telescope.
One interesting thing about the spot is that studies of Jupiter have noticed that it has been shrinking in size for some time, but the wind speed of the storm has gotten faster. It's unsure what this information means at the moment and any speculation remains just so.
Jupiter also has smaller anti-cyclonic storms in its southern hemisphere. They appear to be a string of white spots, similar to a string of pearls, which is why these smaller storms are called "pearls." Since the 1980s they have been observed and in that time they have fluctuated in numbers ranging from six to nine.
James Webb Space Telescope Image
In August of 2022, the JWST took a magnificent picture of Jupiter which can be seen annotated below. In it, you can see several of the moons, the bright auroras, the Great Red Spot, and even Jupiter's rings! This image was taken with the James Webb Space Telescope's NIRCam instrument using two filters, orange (F212N) and cyan (F335M).
This is the first time a picture like this showing so much all at once was taken of the planet. You may also notice some small patches of light in the background, especially near the bottom of the image. These are... faraway galaxies! This shows how insanely good the JWST's optics are, and this is just the beginning.
Missions to Jupiter
Since the 1970s, probes have been sent to study Jupiter. Even now, there's still much to learn because the planet's so mysterious. Below are the names of the missions spearheaded by NASA and other space agencies, as well as a short description and the years they launched.
JUICE - JUpiter ICy Moons Explorer - is a mission headed by the European Space Agency (ESA) to make flybys to the Jovian moons. The explorer's mission is to learn more about Ganymede and Callisto primarily, and Europa.
In 2026, a mission called Europa Clipper is expected to be launched to study Europa by way of multiple flybys.
This orbiter was sent to the planet Jupiter to investigate its atmosphere, internal structure, magnetosphere, and its aurorae. It was set to start collecting data starting in 2016.
The Juno spacecraft is planned to orbit Jupiter until 2025.
This mission was a joint effort from NASA and the ESA (European Space Agency) to send an explorer to Saturn.
At the time, Cassini wasn't able to be sent on a direct course to its final destination, so it used Jupiter's gravity to propel itself to Saturn. During its fly-by, Cassini took some iconic pictures of Jupiter and its moons.
Another joint mission by NASA/ESA with the goal of studying the solar wind and its influence on the surrounding interstellar medium.
The spacecraft made its way to Jupiter and orbited the planet while continuously maintaining a connection with Earth.
Galileo Orbiter and Probe (1989)
This mission was set by NASA and was a two-part mission with an orbiter and a probe.
This mission marks the sixth time a spacecraft went to explore Jupiter's magnetosphere, however, it was the first to orbit the planet!
The probe device was the second part of the Galileo mission which sent a probe to explore the Jovian atmosphere. It was the first probe to enter the atmosphere of one of the outer planets.
Voyager 1 & Voyager 2 (1977)
The Voyager Mission was another pair of spacecraft that were sent to discover more about the Outer Planets. While not the first to make the adventure to the Outer Planets, Voyager 1 is the most distant man-made object sent into space.
Both spacecraft have a message - a gold disk "time capsule" about the planet Earth.
Pioneer 11 (1973)
Sent by NASA, this mission was the second with the objective of discovering more about the planet Jupiter.
It was the first to explore Saturn and its rings and holds the same not-so-hidden message that Pioneer 10 has.
Pioneer 10 (1972)
This was the first mission to go past the Outer Planets. NASA planned a Jupiter flyby for Pioneer 10 which used the trajectory to head toward Aldebaran - a red star in Taurus.
Below is what was etched onto two plaques that were placed on Pioneer 10 and 11. These plaques show what humankind looks like, as well as an understanding of time and distance if ever found by intelligent life.
Find out more details about each of these missions by visiting NASA's webpage of Jupiter missions.
The fifth planet has many moons orbiting around it. The most notable are the Galilean Moons, which happen to be Jupiter's largest moons.
The Galilean Moons
The discovery of these moons was fortunate for one early and well-known astronomer: Galileo Galilei. With improvements to his telescope, he managed to make out the peculiar small dots circling the largest planet. Galilei discovered the following moons in 1610:
Atmosphere: Sulfur dioxide
Circumference: 7,112 mi (11,445 km)
Size Comparison: 3.5x smaller than Earth
Name Origin: Greek; the name of an Argive princess Fun Fact: Home to 400+ volcanoes.
The appearance of Io is yellow in color and is dotted with mountains, some of which are higher than Mt. Everest on Earth. The moon also has more than 400 active volcanoes making it the most volcanically active object in our Solar System. Sometimes the activity can be seen with high-powered telescopes from Earth! Its atmosphere is mostly sulfur dioxide, so it is unlikely life can be sustained on this tiny but mighty Jovian moon.
Circumference: 6,094 mi (9,807 km)
Size Comparison: 4.1x smaller than Earth
Name Origin: Greek; meaning "wide face" Fun Fact: The most likely place in our Solar System where the potential for life exists.
Europa is an icy planet brandished with red streaks that appear like cuts scarred onto the surface. The presence of ice means there is potential for life as we know it, and it is further speculated because the environment has an atmosphere of Oxygen - although it's too thin for humans. The moon is the second smallest moon.
Circumference: 10,273 mi (16,532 km)
Size Comparison: 2.4x smaller than Earth
Name Origin: Greek; meaning "to be glad," also "cupbearer to the gods" in mythology Fun Fact: The largest moon in our Solar System.
The appearance of Ganymede is very similar to our natural satellite. The size of this Jovian moon is larger than Mercury and our moon! One discovery about Ganymede is that scientific mapping of the planet has found that icy water exists deep beneath its surface. This means that it has the making of an environment with the potential to support life. Additionally, this moon, unlike the others, seems to have its own magnetic field.
Atmosphere: Carbon dioxide
Circumference: 9,411 mi (15,144 km)
Size Comparison: 2.6x smaller than Earth
Name Origin: Italian spelling of the Greek word "kallistos," meaning "most beautiful" Fun Fact: The most heavily cratered object in the Solar System.
The appearance of Callisto is dark and somewhat scary. The dark parts of the moon are thought to be ice that has eroded. It is peppered with white spots all over and on its peaks, which scientists think are formations of ice. Considered the least beautiful of the Galilean Moons, the second largest Jovian moon might have the potential for life. The Galileo spacecraft created models of the moon and it may have a salty ocean underneath its surface.
Final Thoughts and Summary of the Planet Jupiter
The fifth planet is not only the largest but it also holds the most information about the formation of the Solar System. Its appearance and signature markings make Jupiter a sight to see for visual observers. Given the name of a notable god by its discoverers, Jupiter is considered the king of the planets and has the most moons at 92 - some large enough to see with the right equipment. The Jovian moons are something to behold if you have the chance to see the natural satellites.
Type: Gas Giant
Name Origin: King of the Roman Gods
Discovered in: Ancient Times
Radius: 69,911 km
Distance from Sun: 778 million km
Day: 10 Earth hours
Orbit: 4,333 Earth days
Natural Satellites (moons): 92
Light speed from Sun: 41.23 min
If you observe this planet, you should try your hand at photographing it too! We'll have an article coming soon to teach you how to photograph Jupiter in-depth.