Planetary core

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The internal structure of the inner planets. Terrestial Planets internal en.jpg
The internal structure of the inner planets.
The internal structure of the outer planets. Gas Giant Interiors.jpg
The internal structure of the outer planets.

The planetary core consists of the innermost layer(s) of a planet. [1] Cores of specific planets may be entirely solid or entirely liquid, or may be a mixture of solid and liquid layers as is the case in the Earth. [2] In the Solar System, core size can range from about 20% (Moon) to 85% of a planet's radius (Mercury).


Gas giants also have cores, though the composition of these are still a matter of debate and range in possible composition from traditional stony/iron, to ice or to fluid metallic hydrogen. [3] [4] [5] Gas giant cores are proportionally much smaller than those of terrestrial planets, though theirs can be considerably larger than the Earth's nevertheless; Jupiter has one 10–30 times heavier than Earth, [5] and exoplanet HD149026 b may have a core 100 times the mass of the Earth. [6]

Planetary cores are challenging to study because it is impossible to reach by drill and there are almost no samples that are definitively from the core. Thus alternative techniques such as seismology, mineral physics, and planetary dynamics have to be combined to give scientists an understanding of cores.


Earth's Core

In 1798, Henry Cavendish calculated the average density of the earth to be 5.48 times the density of water (later refined to 5.53), this led to the accepted belief that the Earth was much denser in its interior. [7] Following the discovery of iron meteorites, Wiechert in 1898 postulated that the Earth had a similar bulk composition to iron meteorites, but the iron had settled to the interior of the Earth, and later represented this by integrating the bulk density of the Earth with the missing iron and nickel as a core. [8] The first detection of Earth's core occurred in 1906 by Richard Dixon Oldham upon discovery of the P-wave shadow zone; the liquid outer core. [9] By 1936 seismologists had determined the size of the overall core as well as the boundary between the fluid outer core and the solid inner core. [10]

Moon's Core

The internal structure of the Moon was characterized in 1974 using seismic data collected by the Apollo missions of moonquakes. [11] The Moon's core has a radius of 300 km. [12] The Moon's iron core has a liquid outer layer that makes up 60% of the volume of the core, with a solid inner core. [13]

Cores of the Rocky Planets

The cores of the rocky planets were initially characterized by analyzing data from spacecraft, such as NASA's Mariner 10 that flew by Mercury and Venus to observe their surface characteristics. [14] The cores of other planets cannot be measured using seismometers on their surface, so instead they have to be inferred based on calculations from these fly-by observation. Mass and size can provide a first-order calculation of the components that make up the interior of a planetary body. The structure of rocky planets is constrained by the average density of a planet and its moment of inertia. [15] The moment of inertia for a differentiated planet is less than 0.4, because the density of the planet is concentrated in the center. [16] Mercury has a moment of inertia of 0.346, which is evidence for a core. [17] Conservation of energy calculations as well as magnetic field measurements can also constrain composition, and surface geology of the planets can characterize differentiation of the body since its accretion. [18] Mercury, Venus, and Mars’ cores are about 75%, 50%, and 40% of their radius respectively. [19] [20]



Planetary systems form from flattened disks of dust and gas that accrete rapidly (within thousands of years) into planetesimals around 10 km in diameter. From here gravity takes over to produce Moon to Mars sized planetary embryos (105 – 106 years) and these develop into planetary bodies over an additional 10–100 million years. [21]

Jupiter and Saturn most likely formed around previously existing rocky and/or icy bodies, rendering these previous primordial planets into gas-giant cores. [5] This is the planetary core accretion model of planet formation.


Planetary differentiation is broadly defined as the development from one thing to many things; homogeneous body to several heterogeneous components. [22] The hafnium-182/tungsten-182 isotopic system has a half-life of 9 million years, and is approximated as an extinct system after 45 million years. Hafnium is a lithophile element and tungsten is siderophile element. Thus if metal segregation (between the Earth's core and mantle) occurred in under 45 million years, silicate reservoirs develop positive Hf/W anomalies, and metal reservoirs acquire negative anomalies relative to undifferentiated chondrite material. [21] The observed Hf/W ratios in iron meteorites constrain metal segregation to under 5 million years, the Earth's mantle Hf/W ratio places Earth's core as having segregated within 25 million years. [21] Several factors control segregation of a metal core including the crystallization of perovskite. Crystallization of perovskite in an early magma ocean is an oxidation process and may drive the production and extraction of iron metal from an original silicate melt.

Core merging/impacts

Impacts between planet-sized bodies in the early Solar System are important aspects in the formation and growth of planets and planetary cores.

Earth–Moon system

The giant impact hypothesis states that an impact between a theoretical Mars-sized planet Theia and the early Earth formed the modern Earth and Moon. [23] During this impact the majority of the iron from Theia and the Earth became incorporated into the Earth's core. [24]


Core merging between the proto-Mars and another differentiated planetoid could have been as fast as 1000 years or as slow as 300,000 years (depending on viscosity of both cores). [25]


Determining primary composition – Earth

Using the chondritic reference model and combining known compositions of the crust and mantle, the unknown component, the composition of the inner and outer core, can be determined; 85% Fe, 5% Ni, 0.9% Cr, 0.25% Co, and all other refractory metals at very low concentration. [21] This leaves Earth's core with a 5–10% weight deficit for the outer core, [26] and a 4–5% weight deficit for the inner core; [26] which is attributed to lighter elements that should be cosmically abundant and are iron-soluble; H, O, C, S, P, and Si. [21] Earth's core contains half the Earth's vanadium and chromium, and may contain considerable niobium and tantalum. [26] Earth's core is depleted in germanium and gallium. [26]

Weight deficit components – Earth

Sulfur is strongly siderophilic and only moderately volatile and depleted in the silicate earth; thus may account for 1.9 weight % of Earth's core. [21] By similar arguments, phosphorus may be present up to 0.2 weight %. Hydrogen and carbon, however, are highly volatile and thus would have been lost during early accretion and therefore can only account for 0.1 to 0.2 weight % respectively. [21] Silicon and oxygen thus make up the remaining mass deficit of Earth's core; though the abundances of each are still a matter of controversy revolving largely around the pressure and oxidation state of Earth's core during its formation. [21] No geochemical evidence exists to include any radioactive elements in Earth's core. [26] Despite this, experimental evidence has found potassium to be strongly siderophilic at the temperatures associated with core formation, thus there is potential for potassium in planetary cores of planets, and therefore potassium-40 as well. [27]

Isotopic composition – Earth

Hafnium/tungsten (Hf/W) isotopic ratios, when compared with a chondritic reference frame, show a marked enrichment in the silicate earth indicating depletion in Earth's core. Iron meteorites, believed to be resultant from very early core fractionation processes, are also depleted. [21] Niobium/tantalum (Nb/Ta) isotopic ratios, when compared with a chondritic reference frame, show mild depletion in bulk silicate Earth and the moon. [28]

Pallasite meteorites

Pallasites are thought to form at the core-mantle boundary of an early planetesimal, although a recent hypothesis suggests that they are impact-generated mixtures of core and mantle materials. [29]



Dynamo theory is a proposed mechanism to explain how celestial bodies like the Earth generate magnetic fields. The presence or lack of a magnetic field can help constrain the dynamics of a planetary core. Refer to Earth's magnetic field for further details. A dynamo requires a source of thermal and/or compositional buoyancy as a driving force. [28] Thermal buoyancy from a cooling core alone cannot drive the necessary convection as indicated by modelling, thus compositional buoyancy (from changes of phase) is required. On Earth the buoyancy is derived from crystallization of the inner core (which can occur as a result of temperature). Examples of compositional buoyancy include precipitation of iron alloys onto the inner core and liquid immiscibility both, which could influence convection both positively and negatively depending on ambient temperatures and pressures associated with the host-body. [28] Other celestial bodies that exhibit magnetic fields are Mercury, Jupiter, Ganymede, and Saturn. [3]

Core Heat Source

A planetary core acts as a heat source for the outer layers of a planet. In the Earth, the heat flux over the core mantle boundary is 12 terawatts. [30] This value is calculated from a variety of factors: secular cooling, differentiation of light elements, Coriolis forces, radioactive decay, and latent heat of crystallization. [30] All planetary bodies have a primordial heat value, or the amount of energy from accretion. Cooling from this initial temperature is called secular cooling, and in the Earth the secular cooling of the core transfers heat into an insulating silicate mantle. [30] As the inner core grows, the latent heat of crystallization adds to the heat flux into the mantle. [30]

Stability and instability

Small planetary cores may experience catastrophic energy release associated with phase changes within their cores. Ramsey, 1950 found that the total energy released by such a phase change would be on the order of 1029 joules; equivalent to the total energy release due to earthquakes through geologic time. Such an event could explain the asteroid belt. Such phase changes would only occur at specific mass to volume ratios, and an example of such a phase change would be the rapid formation or dissolution of a solid core component. [31]

Inner Rocky Planets

All of the rocky inner planets, as well as the moon, have an iron-dominant core. Venus and Mars have an additional major element in the core. Venus’ core is believed to be iron-nickel, similarly to Earth. Mars, on the other hand, is believed to have an iron-sulfur core and is separated into an outer liquid layer around an inner solid core. [20] As the orbital radius of a rocky planet increases, the size of the core relative to the total radius of the planet decreases. [15] This is believed to be because differentiation of the core is directly related to a body's initial heat, so Mercury's core is relatively large and active. [15] Venus and Mars, as well as the moon, do not have magnetic fields. This could be due to a lack of a convecting liquid layer interacting with a solid inner core, as Venus’ core is not layered. [19] Although Mars does have a liquid and solid layer, they do not appear to be interacting in the same way that Earth's liquid and solid components interact to produce a dynamo. [20]

Outer Gas and Ice Giants

Current understanding of the outer planets in the solar system, the ice and gas giants, theorizes small cores of rock surrounded by a layer of ice, and in Jupiter and Saturn models suggest a large region of liquid metallic hydrogen and helium. [19] The properties of these metallic hydrogen layers is a major area of contention because it is difficult to produce in laboratory settings, due to the high pressures needed. [32] Jupiter and Saturn appear to release a lot more energy than they should be radiating just from the sun, which is attributed to heat released by the hydrogen and helium layer. Uranus does not appear to have a significant heat source, but Neptune has a heat source that is attributed to a “hot” formation. [19]

Observed types

The following summarizes known information about the planetary cores of given non-stellar bodies.

Within the Solar System


Mercury has an observed magnetic field, which is believed to be generated within its metallic core. [28] Mercury's core occupies 85% of the planet's radius, making it the largest core relative to the size of the planet in the Solar System; this indicates that much of Mercury's surface may have been lost early in the Solar System's history. [33] Mercury has a solid silicate crust and mantle overlying a solid iron sulfide outer core layer, followed by a deeper liquid core layer, and then a possible solid inner core making a third layer. [33]


The composition of Venus' core varies significantly depending on the model used to calculate it, thus constraints are required. [34]

ElementChondritic ModelEquilibrium Condensation ModelPyrolitic Model


The existence of a lunar core is still debated; however, if it does have a core it would have formed synchronously with the Earth's own core at 45 million years post-start of the Solar System based on hafnium-tungsten evidence [35] and the giant impact hypothesis. Such a core may have hosted a geomagnetic dynamo early on in its history. [28]


The Earth has an observed magnetic field generated within its metallic core. [28] The Earth has a 5–10% mass deficit for the entire core and a density deficit from 4–5% for the inner core. [26] The Fe/Ni value of the core is well constrained by chondritic meteorites. [26] Sulfur, carbon, and phosphorus only account for ~2.5% of the light element component/mass deficit. [26] No geochemical evidence exists for including any radioactive elements in the core. [26] However, experimental evidence has found that potassium is strongly siderophile when dealing with temperatures associated with core-accretion, and thus potassium-40 could have provided an important source of heat contributing to the early Earth's dynamo, though to a lesser extent than on sulfur rich Mars. [27] The core contains half the Earth's vanadium and chromium, and may contain considerable niobium and tantalum. [26] The core is depleted in germanium and gallium. [26] Core mantle differentiation occurred within the first 30 million years of Earth's history. [26] Inner core crystallization timing is still largely unresolved. [26]


Mars possibly hosted a core-generated magnetic field in the past. [28] The dynamo ceased within 0.5 billion years of the planet's formation. [2] Hf/W isotopes derived from the martian meteorite Zagami, indicate rapid accretion and core differentiation of Mars; i.e. under 10 million years. [23] Potassium-40 could have been a major source of heat powering the early Martian dynamo. [27]

Core merging between proto-Mars and another differentiated planetoid could have been as fast as 1000 years or as slow as 300,000 years (depending on the viscosity of both cores and mantles). [25] Impact-heating of the Martian core would have resulted in stratification of the core and kill the Martian dynamo for a duration between 150 and 200 million years. [25] Modelling done by Williams, et al. 2004 suggests that in order for Mars to have had a functional dynamo, the Martian core was initially hotter by 150  K than the mantle (agreeing with the differentiation history of the planet, as well as the impact hypothesis), and with a liquid core potassium-40 would have had opportunity to partition into the core providing an additional source of heat. The model further concludes that the core of mars is entirely liquid, as the latent heat of crystallization would have driven a longer-lasting (greater than one billion years) dynamo. [2] If the core of Mars is liquid, the lower bound for sulfur would be five weight %. [2]


Ganymede has an observed magnetic field generated within its metallic core. [28]


Jupiter has an observed magnetic field generated within its core, indicating some metallic substance is present. [3] Its magnetic field is the strongest in the Solar System after the Sun's.

Jupiter has a rock and/or ice core 10–30 times the mass of the Earth, and this core is likely soluble in the gas envelope above, and so primordial in composition. Since the core still exists, the outer envelope must have originally accreted onto a previously existing planetary core. [5] Thermal contraction/evolution models support the presence of metallic hydrogen within the core in large abundances (greater than Saturn). [3]


Saturn has an observed magnetic field generated within its metallic core. [3] Metallic hydrogen is present within the core (in lower abundances than Jupiter). [3] Saturn has a rock and or ice core 10–30 times the mass of the Earth, and this core is likely soluble in the gas envelope above, and therefore it is primordial in composition. Since the core still exists, the envelope must have originally accreted onto previously existing planetary cores. [5] Thermal contraction/evolution models support the presence of metallic hydrogen within the core in large abundances (but still less than Jupiter). [3]

Remnant Planetary Cores

Missions to bodies in the asteroid belt will provide more insight to planetary core formation. It was previously understood that collisions in the solar system fully merged, but recent work on planetary bodies argues that remnants of collisions have their outer layers stripped, leaving behind a body that would eventually become a planetary core. [36] The Psyche mission, titled “Journey to a Metal World,” is aiming to studying a body that could possibly be a remnant planetary core. [37]


As the field of exoplanets grows as new techniques allow for the discovery of both diverse exoplanets, the cores of exoplanets are being modeled. These depend on initial compositions of the exoplanets, which is inferred using the absorption spectra of individual exoplanets in combination with the emission spectra of their star.

Chthonian planets

A chthonian planet results when a gas giant has its outer atmosphere stripped away by its parent star, likely due to the planet's inward migration. All that remains from the encounter is the original core.

Planets derived from stellar cores and diamond planets

Carbon planets, previously stars, are formed alongside the formation of a millisecond pulsar. The first such planet discovered was 18 times the density of water, and five times the size of Earth. Thus the planet cannot be gaseous, and must be composed of heavier elements that are also cosmically abundant like carbon and oxygen; making it likely crystalline like a diamond. [38]

PSR J1719-1438 is a 5.7 millisecond pulsar found to have a companion with a mass similar to Jupiter but a density of 23 g/cm3, suggesting that the companion is an ultralow mass carbon white dwarf, likely the core of an ancient star. [39]

Hot ice planets

Exoplanets with moderate densities (more dense than Jovian planets, but less dense than terrestrial planets) suggests that such planets like GJ1214b and GJ436 are composed of primarily water. Internal pressures of such water-worlds would result in exotic phases of water forming on the surface and within their cores. [40]

Related Research Articles

Giant planet Planet much larger than the Earth

A giant planet is any planet much larger than Earth. They are usually primarily composed of low-boiling-point materials, rather than rock or other solid matter, but massive solid planets can also exist. There are four known giant planets in the Solar System: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Many extrasolar giant planets have been identified orbiting other stars.

Magnetosphere The region around an astronomical object in which charged particles are affected by its magnetic field

A magnetosphere is a region of space surrounding an astronomical object in which charged particles are affected by that object's magnetic field. It is created by a star or planet with an active interior dynamo.

Planet Class of astronomical body directly orbiting a star or stellar remnant

A planet is an astronomical body orbiting a star or stellar remnant that is massive enough to be rounded by its own gravity, is not massive enough to cause thermonuclear fusion, and has cleared its neighbouring region of planetesimals.

Solar System The planets and their moons that orbit around the Sun

The Solar System is the gravitationally bound system of the Sun and the objects that orbit it, either directly or indirectly. Of the objects that orbit the Sun directly, the largest are the eight planets, with the remainder being smaller objects, the dwarf planets and small Solar System bodies. Of the objects that orbit the Sun indirectly—the moons—two are larger than the smallest planet, Mercury.

Saturn Sixth planet from the Sun and second largest planet in the Solar System

Saturn is the sixth planet from the Sun and the second-largest in the Solar System, after Jupiter. It is a gas giant with an average radius of about nine times that of Earth. It only has one-eighth the average density of Earth; however, with its larger volume, Saturn is over 95 times more massive. Saturn is named after the Roman god of wealth and agriculture; its astronomical symbol (♄) represents the god's sickle.

Ganymede (moon) The largest moon of Jupiter and in the Solar System

Ganymede, a satellite of Jupiter, is the largest and most massive of the Solar System's moons. The ninth-largest object in the Solar System, it is the largest without a substantial atmosphere. It has a diameter of 5,268 km (3,273 mi) and is 8% larger than the planet Mercury, although only 45% as massive. Possessing a metallic core, it has the lowest moment of inertia factor of any solid body in the Solar System and is the only moon known to have a magnetic field. Outward from Jupiter, it is the seventh satellite and the third of the Galilean moons, the first group of objects discovered orbiting another planet. Ganymede orbits Jupiter in roughly seven days and is in a 1:2:4 orbital resonance with the moons Europa and Io, respectively.

Earths outer core Fluid layer composed of mostly iron and nickel between Earths solid inner core and its mantle

Earth's outer core is a fluid layer about 2,400 km (1,500 mi) thick and composed of mostly iron and nickel that lies above Earth's solid inner core and below its mantle. Its outer boundary lies 2,890 km (1,800 mi) beneath Earth's surface. The transition between the inner core and outer core is located approximately 5,150 km (3,200 mi) beneath the Earth's surface. Unlike the inner core, the outer core is liquid.

Atmosphere The layer of gases surrounding an astronomical body held by gravity

An atmosphere is a layer or a set of layers of gases surrounding a planet or other material body, that is held in place by the gravity of that body. An atmosphere is more likely to be retained if the gravity it is subject to is high and the temperature of the atmosphere is low.

Dynamo theory Mechanism by which a celestial body generates a magnetic field

In physics, the dynamo theory proposes a mechanism by which a celestial body such as Earth or a star generates a magnetic field. The dynamo theory describes the process through which a rotating, convecting, and electrically conducting fluid can maintain a magnetic field over astronomical time scales. A dynamo is thought to be the source of the Earth's magnetic field and the magnetic fields of Mercury and the Jovian planets.

Structure of Earth Inner structure of planet Earth, consisting of several concentric spherical layers

The internal structure of Earth is layered in spherical shells: an outer silicate solid crust, a highly viscous asthenosphere and mantle, a liquid outer core that is much less viscous than the mantle, and a solid inner core. Scientific understanding of the internal structure of Earth is based on observations of topography and bathymetry, observations of rock in outcrop, samples brought to the surface from greater depths by volcanoes or volcanic activity, analysis of the seismic waves that pass through Earth, measurements of the gravitational and magnetic fields of Earth, and experiments with crystalline solids at pressures and temperatures characteristic of Earth's deep interior.

Core–mantle boundary Discontinuity where the bottom of the planets mantle meets the outer layer of the core

The core–mantle boundary of the Earth lies between the planet's silicate mantle and its liquid iron-nickel outer core. This boundary is located at approximately 2891 km (1796 mi) depth beneath the Earth's surface. The boundary is observed via the discontinuity in seismic wave velocities at that depth due to the differences between the acoustic impedances of the solid mantle and the molten outer core. P-wave velocities are much slower in the outer core than in the deep mantle while S-waves do not exist at all in the liquid portion of the core. Recent evidence suggests a distinct boundary layer directly above the CMB possibly made of a novel phase of the basic perovskite mineralogy of the deep mantle named post-perovskite. Seismic tomography studies have shown significant irregularities within the boundary zone and appear to be dominated by the African and Pacific large low-shear-velocity provinces (LLSVPs).

Ice giant giant planet primarily composed of elements heavier than hydrogen and helium

An ice giant is a giant planet composed mainly of elements heavier than hydrogen and helium, such as oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur. There are two ice giants in the Solar System: Uranus and Neptune.

Earths inner core Innermost part of the Earth, a solid ball of iron-nickel alloy

Earth's inner core is the innermost geologic layer of the Earth. It is primarily a solid ball with a radius of about 1,220 kilometres, which is about 20% of the Earth's radius or 70% of the Moon's radius.

Formation and evolution of the Solar System Formation of the Solar System by gravitational collapse of a molecular cloud and subsequent geological history

The formation and evolution of the Solar System began 4.5 billion years ago with the gravitational collapse of a small part of a giant molecular cloud. Most of the collapsing mass collected in the center, forming the Sun, while the rest flattened into a protoplanetary disk out of which the planets, moons, asteroids, and other small Solar System bodies formed.

Extraterrestrial liquid water is water in its liquid state that naturally occurs outside Earth. It is a subject of wide interest because it is recognized as one of the key prerequisites for life as we know it and thus surmised as essential for extraterrestrial life.

History of Solar System formation and evolution hypotheses

The history of scientific thought about the Formation and evolution of the Solar System begins with the Copernican Revolution. The first recorded use of the term "Solar System" dates from 1704.

A coreless planet is a theoretical type of terrestrial planet that has no metallic core, i.e. the planet is effectively a giant rocky mantle.

Mercurys magnetic field

Mercury's magnetic field is approximately a magnetic dipole apparently global, on planet Mercury. Data from Mariner 10 led to its discovery in 1974; the spacecraft measured the field's strength as 1.1% that of Earth's magnetic field. The origin of the magnetic field can be explained by dynamo theory. The magnetic field is strong enough near the bow shock to slow the solar wind, which induces a magnetosphere.

Gas giant Giant planet which mainly consists of light elements such as hydrogen and helium

A gas giant is a giant planet composed mainly of hydrogen and helium. Gas giants are sometimes known as failed stars because they contain the same basic elements as a star. Jupiter and Saturn are the gas giants of the Solar System. The term "gas giant" was originally synonymous with "giant planet", but in the 1990s it became known that Uranus and Neptune are really a distinct class of giant planet, being composed mainly of heavier volatile substances. For this reason, Uranus and Neptune are now often classified in the separate category of ice giants.

Grand tack hypothesis in the early days of the Solar System, Jupiter moved inward then reversed course ("tacked") to its current orbit.

In planetary astronomy, the grand tack hypothesis proposes that after its formation at 3.5 AU, Jupiter migrated inward to 1.5 AU, before reversing course due to capturing Saturn in an orbital resonance, eventually halting near its current orbit at 5.2 AU. The reversal of Jupiter's migration is likened to the path of a sailboat changing directions (tacking) as it travels against the wind.


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