It may be a while yet before astronomers agree on a standard model for planet formation around stars. Until recently, after all, Earthlings lacked reliable techniques for glimpsing much beyond our own solar system.
Based on our own backyard, one prevailing theory is that rocky planets like Mercury, Earth and Mars form slowly, close to the sun, from collisions of smaller, solid bodies while gas giants form faster, and farther from the star — often within the first two million years of a star’s life — from smaller rocky cores that readily attract gases.
But new data are suggesting that some gas giants form close to their stars — so close that intense stellar winds rob them of those gases, stripping them back to their cores.
An international research team has found that giant exoplanets orbiting very close to their stars — closer than 2 percent of an Astronomical Unit (AU) — could lose a quarter of their mass during their lifetime. An AU is the distance between the Earth and the Sun.
Such planets may lose their atmospheres completely.
The team, led by Helmut Lammer of the Space Research Institute of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, believes that the recently discovered CoRoT-7b “Super Earth,” which has less than twice the mass of the Earth, could be the stripped core of a Neptune-sized planet.
The team used computer models to study the possible atmospheric mass loss over a stellar lifecycle for exoplanets at orbiting distances of less than 0.06 AU, where the planetary and stellar parameters are very well known from observations.
Mercury is our only neighbor orbiting the Sun in that range; Venus orbits at about .72 AUs.
The 49 planets considered in the study included hot gas giants, planets with masses similar or greater than that of Saturn and Jupiter, and hot ice giants, planets comparable to Uranus or Neptune. All the exoplanets in the sample were discovered using the transit method, where the size and mass of the planet is deduced by observing how much its parent star dims as it the planet passes in front of it.
“If the transit data are accurate, these results have great relevance for planetary formation theories,” said Lammer, who is presenting results at the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science, April 20-23 at the University of Hertfordshire in the UK.
“We found that the Jupiter-type gas giant WASP-12b may have lost around 20-25 percent of its mass over its lifetime, but that other exoplanets in our sample had negligible mass loss. Our model shows also that one major important effect is the balance between the pressure from the electrically charged layer of the planet’s atmosphere and the pressure from the stellar wind and coronal mass ejections (CMEs). At orbits closer than 0.02 AU, the CMEs — violent explosions from the star’s outer layers — overwhelm the exoplanet’s atmospheric pressure causing it to lose maybe several tens of percent of its initial mass during its lifetime.”
The team found that gas giants could evaporate down to their core size if they orbit closer than 0.015 AU. Lower-density ice giants could completely lose their hydrogen envelope at 0.045 AU. Gas giants orbiting at more than 0.02 AU lost about 5-7 percent of their mass. Other exoplanets lost less than 2 percent. Results suggest that CoRoT-7b could be an evaporated Neptune-like planet but not the core of a larger gas giant. Model simulations indicate that larger mass gas giants could not have been evaporated to the mass range determined for CoRoT-7b.
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