The Milky Way’s Very Own Vacuum Cleaner
The largest planet in our Solar System, Jupiter has long fascinated astronomers and stargazers alike. Named after the king of the gods in Ancient Rome, Jupiter is often the third-brightest object in the night sky as seen from Earth, and it has a mass two and a half times greater than all of the other planets in our Solar System combined.
Aside from its impressive statistics and place in celestial mythology, Jupiter may also play a crucial role in the development of life on Earth. Some scientists theorize that Jupiter serves as a sort of planetary shield for the inner Solar System, protecting Earth from foreign bodies like comets and asteroids, thus enabling life to have thrived more fully, contributing to the Rare Earth Hypothesis.
But is Jupiter truly the ‘gentle giant’ some scientists think it to be?
Though theorized since ancient times, a 1994 space event gave new momentum to the idea that Jupiter serves a shield for the inner Solar System.
Pictured above, we see the many broken fragments of of the comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, which collided with Jupiter in 1994. The comet had originally been broken apart by the gravitational effects of Jupiter’s tidal forces in 1992 before returning on a destructive course. While broken apart, some of the disrupted comet fragments were over a mile in diameter.
As scientists eagerly witnessed this event, it provided further proof to the concept that Jupiter’s enormous gravity attracts foreign bodies that might otherwise be on a collision course with Earth.
Given the size and mass of Jupiter, it was long considered to be the “liver” of the Solar System, attracting foreign objects like a vacuum cleaner and taking the impact of asteroids and other debris, thereby preventing them from colliding with smaller and more delicate planets.
For reference, the rate of comets hitting Jupiter is some two to eight thousand times greater than for Earth.