Skip to Main Content

Planets in a Test Tube

Pin it

see captionMarch 6, 2000: What do the racing winds on Jupiter and the snail's pace circulation of molten rock inside the Earth have in common? They're all fluids whose movements were simulated in a "planet in a test tube" flown aboard the Space Shuttle in 1985 and 1995.

Right: Hubble image of Jupiter with possible convection patterns outlined in white. The dotted line represents the approximate location of the hypothesized transition zone between neutral and metallic hydrogen in Jupiter. Links to 800x823-pixel 212K JPG. Credit: NASA/Marshall.

Since the early 1900s scientists have used rotating pans filled with liquids to simulate the flow of Earth's atmosphere. In the last few decades researchers have increasingly used advanced computers to simulate atmospheres and interiors of stars and planets. But even these computer

models have been limited by the complexity of the equations that described fluid motions in these objects.

To complement the computer simulations, a team of scientists took a physical laboratory model of stars and planets into space where weightless conditions prevail, and then gave it an artificial radial gravity (meaning it pulled inward towards the center of the spherical test cell) just as found on these objects.