New ideas on evolution of the Solar System

The Kepler Space Telescope launched in 2009 was designed to detect and measure planetary bodies orbiting other stars. It was hoped that it would help slake the growing thirst for signs of alien but Earth-like worlds, extraterrestrial life and communications from other sentient beings. Results from the Kepler mission have, however, fostered a growing awareness that all is not well with the simple, Laplacian formation of planetary systems. For a start not one of the thousands of exoplanets revealed by Kepler is in a planetary system resembling the Solar System, let along sharing crucial attributes with the Earth. Giant planets occur around only a tenth of the stars observed, and even fewer in stable, near-circular orbits. Although it is early days in the quest for Earth- and Solar System look-alikes, some unexpected contrasts with the Solar System are emerging. For instance, many of the systems have far more mass in close orbit around their star, including gas giants with orbital periods of only a few days and giant rocky planets. Such configurations defy the accepted model for the Solar System where an outward increase in the proportion of volatiles and ices was thought to be the universal rule. Could these ‘hot Jupiters’ have formed further out and then somehow been dragged into scorching proximity to their star? Answers to this and other questions have been sought from computer simulations of the evolution of nebulas. Inevitably, the software has been applied to that of the Solar System, and the results are, quite literally, turning ideas about its early development inside out (Batygin, K., Laughlin, G. & Morbidelli, A., 2016. Born of chaos. Scientific American, v. 314(May 2016),  p. 20-29).

An artist's impression of a protoplanetary disk
An artist’s impression of a protoplanetary disk (credit: Wikipedia)

It seems that at some stage in its growth from the protoplanetary disk the gravitational influence of a planet creates mass perturbations in the remainder of the disk. These feed back to the planet itself, to others and different parts of the disk to create complex and continuously evolving motions; individual planets may migrate inwards, outwards or escape their star’s influence altogether in a chaotic, unpredictable dance. Ultimately, some balance emerges, although that may involve the star engulfing entire worlds and other bodies ending up in interstellar space. It may also end up with worlds dominated by ‘refractory’ materials – i.e. rocky planets like Earth – orbiting further from their star than those composed of ‘volatiles’. In the case of the early Solar System the modelling revealed  Jupiter and Saturn drifting inwards and dragging planetesimals, dust, ice and gas with them to create a gap in the protoplanetary disk. Within about half a million years the two giant planets became locked in their present orbital resonance, which changed the distribution of angular momentum between them and reversed their motion to outward. The clearing of mass neatly explains the asteroid belt and Mars’s otherwise inexplicably small size.

One of the characteristics emerging from Kepler’s discoveries is that ‘super Earths’ orbit close to their star in other systems. Had they existed in the early Solar System the inward drive of Jupiter and Saturn and their ‘bow wave’ of smaller bodies would have had consequences. Swarms of matter from the ‘bow wave’ captured and dissipated angular momentum from the super Earths and dissipated it within a few hundred thousand years, thereby pushing them into death spirals to be consumed by the Sun. This explains what by comparison with Kepler data is a mass deficit in the inner Solar System. The rocky planets – Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars – accreted from the leftovers, perhaps over far longer periods than previously thought.

Intense bombardment of the Moon and the Earth took place during the first half billion years after they had formed, rising to a crescendo in its later stages. Formation of the mare basins brought it to a sudden close at 3.8 Ga, which coincides with the earliest evidence for life on Earth. Lunar evidence indicates that this Late Heavy Bombardment spanned 4.1 to 3.8 Ga. Previously explained by a variety of unsatisfying hypotheses it forms part of the new grand modelling of jostling among the giant planets. Once Jupiter and Saturn together with Uranus and Neptune had stabilised, temporarily, they accumulated lesser orbital perturbations from an outlying disk of evolving dust and planetesimals throughout the Hadean Eon. Ultimately, around 4.1 Ga, the giant planets shifted out of resonance, pushing Jupiter slightly inwards to its current orbit and thrusting the other 3 further outwards. Incidentally, this may have flung another giant planet out of solar orbit to the void. Over about 300 million years they restabilised their orbits through gravitational interaction with the Kuiper belt but at the expense of destabilising the icy bodies within it. Some fled inwards as a barrage of impactors, possibly to deliver much of the water in Earth’s oceans. By 3.8 Ga the giants had settled into their modern orbital set-up; hopefully for the last time.

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