Would it be possible to fly a spacecraft through a gas giant planet?

Shutterstock/Rasica

Would it be possible to fly a spacecraft into the center of a gas giant planet?

Richard Glover London, UK

Although the gas giant planets are mostly made of gas, at depth the pressure means that this gas behaves more like a liquid and, if you go deep enough, like a solid. Additionally, rock debris from other bodies that have fallen into a gas giant would accumulate at its core. Thus, a point would be reached where the “gas” would be too dense to fly through. Additionally, the increased pressure and temperature would destroy any spacecraft long before the center of the planet is reached.

Damir Blazina Chester, United Kingdom

No one knows for sure what’s at the bottom of a gas giant. Assuming those in our solar system – Jupiter and Saturn – are typical examples, it would not be possible to fly through one due to the solid core, high temperature, high pressure and difficulty in obtaining the escape velocity.

It might be different for exoplanets known as hot Jupiters, which are gas giants orbiting close to their star. These seem to have a very low density, much lower than Jupiter and Saturn. This suggests they have more gas and less liquid or solid matter, so maybe one of them would be a better candidate for a flyby?

Herman D’Hondt Mascot, New South Wales, Australia

The gas giant Jupiter consists largely of hydrogen, with around 10% helium, and the pressure at its core could be up to 100 million times that typically seen on Earth at sea level. It is expected to be obvious that no spacecraft could survive this pressure.

Another challenge is the temperature, which could reach 20,000°C at the center of Jupiter. Try to survive this!

It is also possible that Jupiter’s core is rocky, although at pressures of 100 million atmospheres there is not much difference between rock and gas.

mike follows Sutton Coldfield, West Midlands, UK

The short answer is no. The term “gas giant” is misleading. These planets are not clouds of gas, they are planets covered in thick, opaque atmospheres that hide what lies beneath. Although they don’t have a well-defined solid surface like that of rocky (i.e., terrestrial) planets like Earth, you shouldn’t expect to be able to walk through them.

Depending on their density, even the atmospheres of planets and gas clouds could pose a hazard to spacecraft, which must slow down to avoid burning like meteors due to friction-generated heat.

When Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 collided with Jupiter in July 1994, it failed to reach the solid core, let alone appear on the other side of the planet. Instead, a fragment released an energy equivalent to 6 million megatons of explosive TNT, and the comet caused a fireball with a peak temperature of around 40,000°C and a plume that reached a height of over 3000 km. For a time, this was more visible than Jupiter’s Great Red Spot.

electronic biker Cheadle, Staffordshire, UK

By the time a flyby of the gas giant is attempted, our current spacecraft designs will be well outdated. Using the (by then) readily available warp drive will likely make the feat much easier.

To answer this question – or ask a new one – email [email protected]

Questions should be scientific investigations of everyday phenomena, and questions and answers should be concise. We reserve the right to edit elements for clarity and style. Please include a mailing address, daytime phone number and email address.

New Scientist Ltd retains full editorial control over published content and reserves all rights to reuse question and answer material that has been submitted by readers in any medium or format.

Terms and conditions of application.

Leave a Reply