Astronomers Reimagine the Making of the Planets

Astronomers Reimagine the Making of the Planets

Pebble accretion is now a favored theory for how gas giant cores are made, and many astronomers argue it may be taking place in those ALMA images, allowing giant planets to form in the first few million years after a star is born. But the theory’s relevance to the small, terrestrial planets near the sun is controversial. Johansen, Lambrechts and five coauthors published research last year showing how inward-drifting pebbles could have fed the growth of Venus, Earth, Mars and Theia — a since-obliterated world that collided with Earth, ultimately creating the moon. But problems remain. Pebble accretion does not say much about giant impacts like the Earth-Theia crash, which were vital processes in shaping the terrestrial planets, said Miki Nakajima, an astronomer at the University of Rochester. “Even though pebble accretion is very efficient and is a great way to avoid issues with the classical model, it doesn’t seem to be the only way” to make planets, she said.

Morbidelli rejects the idea of pebbles forming rocky worlds, in part because geochemical samples suggest that Earth formed over a long period, and because meteorites come from rocks of widely varying ages. “It’s a matter of location,” he said. “Processes are different depending on the environment. Why not, right? I think that makes qualitative sense.”

Research papers appear nearly every week about the early stages of planet growth, with astronomers arguing about the precise condensation points in the solar nebula; whether planetesimals start out with rings that fall onto the planets; when the streaming instability kicks in; and when pebble accretion does, and where. People can’t agree on how Earth was built, let alone terrestrial planets around distant stars.

Planets on the Move

The five wanderers of the night sky — Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn — were the only known worlds besides this one for most of human history. Twenty-six years after Kant published his nebular hypothesis, William Herschel found another, fainter wanderer and named it Uranus. Then Johann Gottfried Galle spotted Neptune in 1846. Then, a century and a half later, the number of known planets suddenly shot up.

It started in 1995, when Didier Queloz and Michel Mayor of the University of Geneva pointed a telescope at a sunlike star called 51 Pegasi and noticed it wobbling. They inferred that it’s being tugged at by a giant planet closer to it than Mercury is to our sun. Soon, more of these shocking “hot Jupiters” were seen orbiting other stars.

The exoplanet hunt took off after the Kepler space telescope opened its lens in 2009. We now know the cosmos is peppered with planets; nearly every star has at least one, and probably more. Most seem to have planets we lack, however: hot Jupiters, for instance, as well as a class of midsize worlds that are bigger than Earth but smaller than Neptune, uncreatively nicknamed “super-Earths” or “sub-Neptunes.” No star systems have been found that resemble ours, with its four little rocky planets near the sun and four gas giants orbiting far away. “That does seem to be something that is unique to our solar system that is unusual,” said Seth Jacobson, an astronomer at Michigan State University.

Enter the Nice model, an idea that may be able to unify the radically different planetary architectures. In the 1970s, geochemical analysis of the rocks collected by Apollo astronauts suggested that the moon was battered by asteroids 3.9 billion years ago — a putative event known as the Late Heavy Bombardment. In 2005, inspired by this evidence, Morbidelli and colleagues in Nice argued that Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune did not form in their present locations, as the earliest solar nebula model held, but instead moved around 3.9 billion years ago. In the Nice model (as the theory became known), the giant planets changed their orbits wildly at that time, which sent an asteroid deluge toward the inner planets.

The evidence for the Late Heavy Bombardment is no longer considered convincing, but the Nice model has stuck. Morbidelli, Nesvorny and others now conclude that the giants probably migrated even earlier in their history, and that — in an orbital pattern dubbed the Grand Tack — Saturn’s gravity probably stopped Jupiter from moving all the way in toward the sun, where hot Jupiters are often found.

In other words, we might have gotten lucky in our solar system, with multiple giant planets keeping each other in check, so that none swung sunward and destroyed the rocky planets.

“Unless there is something to arrest that process, we would end up with giant planets mostly close to their host stars,” said Jonathan Lunine, an astronomer at Cornell University. “Is inward migration really a necessary outcome of the growth of an isolated giant planet? What are the combinations of multiple giant planets that could arrest that migration? It’s a great problem.”

There is also, according to Morbidelli, “a fierce debate about the timing” of the giant-planet migration — and a possibility that it actually helped grow the rocky planets rather than threatening to destroy them after they grew. Morbidelli just launched a five-year project to study whether an unstable orbital configuration soon after the sun’s formation might have helped stir up rocky remains, coaxing the terrestrial worlds into being.

The upshot is that many researchers now think giant planets and their migrations might dramatically affect the fates of their rocky brethren, in this solar system and others. Jupiter-size worlds might help move asteroids around, or they could limit the number of terrestrial worlds that form. This is a leading hypothesis for explaining the small stature of Mars: It would have grown bigger, maybe to Earth size, but Jupiter’s gravitational influence cut off the supply of material. Many stars studied by the Kepler telescope harbor super-Earths in close orbits, and scientists are split on whether those are likelier to be accompanied by giant planets farther out. Teams have convincingly shown both correlations and anti-correlations between the two exoplanet types, said Rachel Fernandes, a graduate student at the University of Arizona; this indicates that there’s not enough data yet to be sure. “That’s one of those things that is really fun at conferences,” she said. “You’re like, ‘Yeah, yell at each other, but which science is better?’ You don’t know.”

Rebounding Planets

Recently, Jacobson came up with a new model that radically changes the timing of the Nice model migration. In a paper published in April in Nature, he, Beibei Liu of Zhejiang University in China and Sean Raymond of the University of Bordeaux in France argued that gas flow dynamics may have caused the giant planets to migrate only a few million years after they formed — 100 times earlier than in the original Nice model and probably before Earth itself arose.

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