Surprising Discovery. Four Giant Planets Found Around a Very Young Star

Researchers have identified a young star with four Jupiter and Saturn-sized planets in orbit around it, the first time that so many massive planets have been detected in such a young system. Image Credit: Amanda Smith, Institute of Astronomy

What exactly is a “normal” solar system? If we thought we had some idea in the past, we definitely don’t now. And a new study led by astronomers at Cambridge University has reinforced this fact. The new study found four gas giant planets, similar to our own Jupiter and Saturn, orbiting a very young star called CI Tau. And one of the planets has an extreme orbit that takes it more than a thousand times more distant from the star than the innermost planet.

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Forming Dense Metal Planets like Mercury is Probably Pretty Difficult and Rare in the Universe

The planet Mercury, the closet planet to our Sun, is something of an exercise in extremes. Its days last longer than its years and at any given time, its sun-facing side is scorching hot while its dark side is freezing cold. It is also one of the least understood planets in our Solar System. While it is a terrestrial (i.e. rocky) planet like Earth, Venus and Mars, it has a significantly higher iron-to-rock ratio than the others.
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This Meteorite is One of the Few Remnants from a Lost Planet that was Destroyed Long Ago

What if our Solar System had another generation of planets that formed before, or alongside, the planets we have today? A new study published in Nature Communications on April 17th 2018 presents evidence that says that’s what happened. The first-generation planets, or planet, would have been destroyed during collisions in the earlier days of the Solar System and much of the debris swept up in the formation of new bodies.

This is not a new theory, but a new study brings new evidence to support it.

The evidence is in the form of a meteorite that crashed into Sudan’s Nubian Desert in 2008. The meteorite is known as 2008 TC3, or the Almahata Sitta meteorite. Inside the meteorite are tiny crystals called nanodiamonds that, according to this study, could only have formed in the high-pressure conditions within the growth of a planet. This contrasts previous thinking around these meteorites which suggests they formed as a result of powerful shockwaves created in collisions between parent bodies.

“We demonstrate that these large diamonds cannot be the result of a shock but rather of growth that has taken place within a planet.” – study co-author Philippe Gillet

Models of planetary formation show that terrestrial planets are formed by the accretion of smaller bodies into larger and larger bodies. Follow the process long enough, and you end up with planets like Earth. The smaller bodies that join together are typically between the size of the Moon and Mars. But evidence of these smaller bodies is hard to find.

One type of unique and rare meteorite, called a ureilite, could provide the evidence to back up the models, and that’s what fell to Earth in the Nubian Desert in 2008. Ureilites are thought to be the remnants of a lost planet that was formed in the first 10 million years of the Solar System, and then was destroyed in a collision.

Ureilites are different than other stony meteorites. They have a higher component of carbon than other meteorites, mostly in the form of the aforementioned nanodiamonds. Researchers from Switzerland, France and Germany examined the diamonds inside 2008 TC3 and determined that they probably formed in a small proto-planet about 4.55 billion years ago.

Philippe Gillet, one of the study’s co-authors, had this to say in an interview with Associated Press: “We demonstrate that these large diamonds cannot be the result of a shock but rather of growth that has taken place within a planet.”

According to the research presented in this paper, these nanodiamonds were formed under pressures of 200,000 bar (2.9 million psi). This means the mystery parent-planet would have to have been as big as Mercury, or even Mars.

The key to the study is the size of the nanodiamonds. The team’s results show the presence of diamond crystals as large as 100 micrometers. Though the nanodiamonds have since been segmented by a process called graphitization, the team is confident that these larger crystals are there. And they could only have been formed by static high-pressure growth in the interior of a planet. A collision shock wave couldn’t have done it.

This is what’s called a High-Angle Annular Dark-Field (HAADF) Scanning Transmission Electron Microscopy (STEM) image. The image on the left shows diamond segments with similar crystal orientations. The image on the right is a magnification of the green square area. The orange lines highlight the inclusion trails, which match between the diamond segments. But those same trails are absent from the intersecting graphite. Image: Farhang Nabiei, Philippe Gillet, et. al.

But the parent body of the ureilite meteorite in the study would have to have been subject to collisions, otherwise where is it? In the case of this meteorite, a collision and resulting shock wave still played a role.

The study goes on to say that a collision took place some time after the parent body’s formation. And this collision would have produced the shock wave that caused the graphitization of the nanodiamonds.

The key evidence is in what are called High-Angle Annular Dark-Field (HAADF) Scanning Transmission Electron Microscopy (STEM) images, as seen above. The image is two images in one, with the one on the right being a magnification of a part of the image on the left. On the left, dotted yellow lines indicate areas of diamond crystals separate from areas of graphite. On the right is a magnification of the green square.

The inclusion trails are what’s important here. On the right, the inclusion trails are highlighted with the orange lines. They clearly indicate inclusion lines that match between adjacent diamond segments. But the inclusion lines aren’t present in the intervening graphite. In the study, the researchers say this is “undeniable morphological evidence that the inclusions existed in diamond before these were broken into smaller pieces by graphitization.”

To summarize, this supports the idea that a small planet between the size of Mercury and Mars was formed in the first 10 million years of the Solar System. Inside that body, large nanodiamonds were formed by high-pressure growth. Eventually, that parent body was involved in a collision, which produced a shock wave. The shock wave then caused the graphitization of the nanodiamonds.

It’s an intriguing piece of evidence, and fits with what we know about the formation and evolution of our Solar System.

Sources:

Look at This Fascinating Variety of Planet-Forming Disks Around Other Stars

The European Southern Observatory (ESO) has released a stunning collection of images of the circumstellar discs that surround young stars. The images were captured with the SPHERE (Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch) instrument on the ESO’s Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile. We’ve been looking at images of circumstellar disks for quite some time, but this collection reveals the fascinating variety of shapes an sizes that these disks can take.

New images from the SPHERE instrument on ESO’s Very Large Telescope are revealing the dusty discs surrounding nearby young stars in greater detail than previously achieved. They show a bizarre variety of shapes, sizes and structures, including the likely effects of planets still in the process of forming. Image: ESO/H. Avenhaus et al./E. Sissa et al./DARTT-S and SHINE collaborations

We have a widely-accepted model of star formation supported by ample evidence, including images like these ones from the ESO. The model starts with a cloud of gas and dust called a giant molecular cloud. Within that cloud, a pocket of gas and dust begins to coalesce. Eventually, as gravity causes material to fall inward, the pocket becomes more massive, and exerts even more gravitational pull. More gas and dust continues to be drawn in.

The material that falls in also gives some angular momentum to the pocket, which causes rotation. Once enough material is accumulated, fusion ignites and a star is born. At that point, there is a proto-star inside the cloud, with unused gas and dust remaining in a rotating ring around the proto-star. That left over rotating ring is called a circumstellar disc, out of which planets eventually form.

There are other images of circumstellar discs, but they’ve been challenging to capture. To image any amount of detail in the disks requires blocking out the light of the star at the center of the disk. That’s where SPHERE comes in.

A detailed view of the SPHERE instrument and its main subsystems. SPHERE is installed on the ESO’s VLT and saw first light in 2014. Image: ESO

SPHERE was added to the ESO’s Very Large Telescope in 2014. It’s primary job is to directly image exoplanets, but it also has the ability to capture images of circumstellar discs. To do that, it separates two types of light: polarized, and non-polarized.

Light coming directly from a star—in these images, a young star still surrounded by a circumstellar disc—is non-polarized. But once that starlight is scattered by the material in the disk itself, the light becomes polarized. SPHERE, as its name suggests, is able to separate the two types of light and isolate just the light from the disk. That is how the instrument captures such fascinating images of the disks.

An edge-on view of the disc surrounding the star GSC 07396-00759. The disc extends from the lower-left to the upper-right and the central grey region shows where the star was masked out. Credit:
ESO/E. Sissa et al.

Ever since it became clear that exoplanets are not rare, and that most stars—maybe all stars—have planets orbiting them, understanding solar system formation has become a hot topic. The problem has been that we can’t really see it happening in real time. We can look at our own Solar System, and other fully formed ones, and make guesses about how they formed. But planet formation is hidden inside those circumstellar disss. Seeing into those disks is crucial to understanding the link between the properties of the disk itself and the planets that form in the system.

The discs imaged in this collection are mostly from a study called the DARTTS-S (Discs ARound T Tauri Stars with SPHERE) survey. T Tauri stars are young stars less than 10 million years old. At that age, planets are still in the process of forming. The stars range from 230 to 550 light-years away from Earth. In astronomical terms, that’s pretty close. But the blinding bright light of the stars still makes it very difficult to capture the faint light of the discs.

One of the images is not a T Tauri star and is not from the DARTTS-S study. The disc around the star GSC 07396-00759, in the image above, is actually from the SHINE (SpHere INfrared survey for Exoplanets) survey, though the images itself was captured with SPHERE. GSC 07396-00759 is a red star that’s part of a multiple star system that was part of the DARTTS-S study. The puzzling thing is that red star is the same age as the T TAURI star in the same system, but the ring around the red star is much more evolved. Why the two discs around two stars the same age are so different from each other in terms of time-scale and evolution is a puzzle, and is one of the reasons why astronomers want to study these discs much more closely.

We can study our own Solar System, and look at the positions and characteristics of the planets and the asteroid belt and Kuiper Belt. From that we can try to guess how it all formed, but our only chance to understand how it all came together is to look at other younger solar systems as they form.

The SPHERE instrument, and other future instruments like the James Webb Space Telescope, will allow us to look into the circumstellar discs around other stars, and to tease out the details of planetary formation. These new images from SPHERE are a tantalizing taste of the detail and variety we can expect to see.

Hubble Sees a Huge Dust Cloud Around a Newly Forming Star

Younger stars have a cloud of dusty debris encircling them, called a circumstellar disk. This disk is material left over from the star’s formation, and it’s out of this material that planets form. But scientists using the Hubble have been studying an enormous dust structure some 150 billion miles across. Called an exo-ring, this newly imaged structure is much larger than a circumstellar disk, and the vast structure envelops the young star HR 4796A and its inner circumstellar disk.

Discovering a dust structure around a young star is not new, and the star in this new paper from Glenn Schneider of the University of Arizona is probably our most (and best) studied exoplanetary debris system. But Schneider’s paper, along with capturing this new enormous dust structure, seems to have uncovered some of the interplay between the bodies in the system that has previously been hidden.

Schneider used the Space Telescope Imaging Spectrograph (STIS) on the Hubble to study the system. The system’s inner disk was already well-known, but studying the larger structure has revealed more complexity.

The Hubble Space Telescope has imaged a vast, complex dust structure surrounding the star HR 4769A. The bright, inner ring is well-known to astronomers, but the huge dust structure surrounding the whole system is a new discovery. Image: NASA/ESA/G. Schneider (Univ. of Arizona)

The origin of this vast structure of dusty debris is likely collisions between newly forming planets within the smaller inner ring. Outward pressure from the star HR 4769A then propelled the dust outward into space. The star is 23 times more luminous than our Sun, so it has the necessary energy to send the dust such a great distance.

A press release from NASA describes this vast exo-ring structure as a “donut-shaped inner tube that got hit by a truck.” It extends much further in one direction than the other, and looks squashed on one side. The paper presents a couple possible causes for this asymmetric extension.

It could be a bow wave caused by the host star travelling through the interstellar medium. Or it could be under the gravitational influence of the star’s binary companion (HR 4796B), a red dwarf star located 54 billion miles from the primary star.

“The dust distribution is a telltale sign of how dynamically interactive the inner system containing the ring is'” – Glenn Schneider, University of Arizona, Tucson.

The asymmetrical nature of the vast exo-structure points to complex interactions between all of the stars and planets in the system. We’re accustomed to seeing the radiation pressure from the host star shape the gas and dust in a circumstellar disk, but this study presents us with a new level of complexity to account for. And studying this system may open a new window into how solar systems form over time.

Artist’s impression of circumstellar disk of debris around a distant star. These disk are common around younger stars, but the star in this study has a massive dust cloud that envelops and dwarfs the smaller, inner ring. Credit: NASA/JPL

“We cannot treat exoplanetary debris systems as simply being in isolation. Environmental effects, such as interactions with the interstellar medium and forces due to stellar companions, may have long-term implications for the evolution of such systems. The gross asymmetries of the outer dust field are telling us there are a lot of forces in play (beyond just host-star radiation pressure) that are moving the material around. We’ve seen effects like this in a few other systems, but here’s a case where we see a bunch of things going on at once,” Schneider further explained.

The paper suggests that the location and brightness of smaller rings within the larger dust structure places constraints on the masses and orbits of planets within the system, even when the planets themselves can’t be seen. But that will require more work to determine with any specificity.

This paper represents a refinement and advancement of the Hubble’s imaging capabilities. The paper’s author is hopeful that the same methods using in this study can be used on other similar systems to better understand these larger dust structures, how they form, and what role they play.

As he says in the paper’s conclusion, “With many, if not most, technical challenges now understood and addressed, this capability should be used to its fullest, prior to the end of the HST mission, to establish a legacy of the most robust images of high-priority exoplanetary debris systems as an enabling foundation for future investigations in exoplanetary systems science.”

NASA’s Insight Lander Spreads Its Solar Wings. It’ll Fly To Mars In May, 2018

The Insight lander responds to commands to spread its solar arrays during a January 23, 2018 test at the Lockheed Martin clean room in Littleton, Colorado. Image: Lockheed Martin Space

May 2018 is the launch window for NASA’s next mission to Mars, the InSight Lander. InSight is the next member of what could be called a fleet of human vehicles destined for Mars. But rather than working on the question of Martian habitability or suitability for life, InSight will try to understand the deeper structure of Mars.

InSight stands for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport. InSight will be the first robotic explorer to visit Mars and study the red planet’s deep interior. The work InSight does should answer questions about the formation of Mars, and those answers may apply to the history of the other rocky planets in the Solar System. The lander, (InSight is not a rover) will also measure meteorite impacts and tectonic activity happening on Mars currently.

This video helps explain why Mars is a good candidate to answer questions about how all our rocky planets formed, not just Mars itself.

InSight was conceived as part of NASA’s Discovery Program, which are missions focused on important questions all related to the “content, origin, and evolution of the solar system and the potential for life elsewhere”, according to NASA. Understanding how our Solar System and its planets formed is a key part of the Discovery Program, and is the question InSight was built to answer.

This artist's illustration of InSight on a photo background of Mars shows the lander fully deployed. The solar arrays are open, and in the foreground two of its instruments are shown. On the left is the SEIS instrument, and on the right is the HP3 probe. Image: NASA/Lockheed Martin
This artist’s illustration of InSight on a photo background of Mars shows the lander fully deployed. The solar arrays are open, and in the foreground two of its instruments are shown. On the left is the SEIS instrument, and on the right is the HP3 probe. Image: NASA/Lockheed Martin

To do its work, InSight will deploy three instruments: SEIS, HP³, and RISE.

SEIS

This is InSight’s seismic instrument, designed to take the Martian pulse. It stands for Seismic Experiment for Internal Structure.

In this image, InSight's Instrument Deployment Arm is practicing placing SEIS on the surface. Image: NASA/Lockheed Martin
In this image, InSight’s Instrument Deployment Arm is practicing placing SEIS on the surface. Image: NASA/Lockheed Martin

SEIS sits patiently under its dome, which protects it from Martian wind and thermal effects, and waits for something to happen. What’s it waiting for? For seismic waves caused by Marsquakes, meteorite impacts, or by the churning of magma deep in the Martian interior. These waves will help scientists understand the nature of the material that first formed Mars and the other rocky planets.

HP³

HP³ is InSight’s heat probe. It stands for Heat Flow and Physical Properties Probe. Upon deployment on the Martian surface, HP³ will burrow 5 meters (16 ft.) into Mars. No other instrument has ever pierced Mars this deeply. Once there, it will measure the heat flowing deeply within Mars.

In this image, the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Probe is shown inserted into Mars. Image: NASA
In this image, the Heat Flow and Physical Properties Probe is shown inserted into Mars. Image: NASA

Scientists hope that the heat measured by HP³ will help them understand whether or not Mars formed from the same material that Earth and the Moon formed from. It should also help them understand how Mars evolved after it was formed.

RISE

RISE stands for Rotation and Interior Structure Experiment. RISE will measure the Martian wobble as it orbits the Sun, by precisely tracking InSight’s position on the surface. This will tell scientists a lot about the deep inner core of Mars. The idea is to determine the depth at which the Martian core is solid. It will also tell us which elements are present in the core. Basically, RISE will tell us how Mars responds to the Sun’s gravity as it orbits the Sun. RISE consists of two antennae on top of InSight.

The two RISE antennae are shown in this image. RISE will reveal information about the Martian core by tracking InSight's position while Mars orbits the Sun. Image: NASA/Lockheed Martin
The two RISE antennae are shown in this image. RISE will reveal information about the Martian core by tracking InSight’s position while Mars orbits the Sun. Image: NASA/Lockheed Martin

InSight will land at Elysium Planitia which is a flat and smooth plain just north of the Martian equator. This is considered a perfect location or InSight to study the Martian interior. The landing sight is not far from where Curiosity landed at Gale Crater in 2012.

InSight will land at Elysium Planitia, just north of the Martian equator. Image: NASA/JPL-CalTech
InSight will land at Elysium Planitia, just north of the Martian equator. Image: NASA/JPL-CalTech

InSight will be launched to Mars from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California by an Atlas V-401 rocket. The trip to Mars will take about 6 months. Once on the Martian surface, InSight’s mission will have a duration of about 728 Earth days, or just over 1 Martian year.

InSight won’t be launching alone. The Atlas that launches the lander will also launch another NASA technology experiment. MarCO, or Mars Cube One, is two suitcase-size CubeSats that will travel to Mars behind InSight. Once in orbit around Mars, their job is to relay InSight data as the lander enters the Martian atmosphere and lands. This will be the first time that miniaturized CubeSat technology will be tested at another planet.

One of the MarCO Cubesats that will be launched with InSight. This will be the first time that CubeSat technology will be tested at another planet. Image: NASA/JPL-CalTech
One of the MarCO Cubesats that will be launched with InSight. This will be the first time that CubeSat technology will be tested at another planet. Image: NASA/JPL-CalTech

If the MarCO experiment is successful, it could be a new way of relaying mission data to Earth. MarCO will relay news of a successful landing, or of any problems, much sooner. However, the success of the InSight lander is not dependent on a successful MarCO experiment.

“Monster Planet” Discovered, Makes Scientists Rethink Theories of Planetary Formation

When it comes to how and where planetary systems form, astronomers thought they had a pretty good handle on things. The predominant theory, known as the Nebular Hypothesis, states that stars and planets form from massive clouds of dust and gas (i.e. nebulae). Once this cloud experiences gravitational collapse at the center, its remaining dust and gas forms a protoplanetary disk that eventually accretes to form planets.

However, when studying the distant star NGTS-1 – an M-type (red dwarf) located about 600 light-years away – an international team led by astronomers from the University of Warwick discovered a massive “hot Jupiter” that appeared far too large to be orbiting such a small star. The discovery of this “monster planet” has naturally challenged some previously-held notions about planetary formation.

The study, titled “NGTS-1b: A hot Jupiter transiting an M-dwarf“, recently appeared in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. The team was led by Dr Daniel Bayliss and Professor Peter Wheatley from the University of Warwick and included members from the of the Geneva Observatory, the Cavendish Laboratory, the German Aerospace Center, the Leicester Institute of Space and Earth Observation, the TU Berlin Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics, and multiple universities and research institutes.

Artist’s impression of the cool red star above NGTS-1b. Credit: University of Warwick/Mark Garlick.

The discovery was made using data obtained by the ESO’s Next-Generation Transit Survey (NGTS) facility, which is located at the Paranal Observatory in Chile. This facility is run by an international consortium of astronomers who come from the Universities of Warwick, Leicester, Cambridge, Queen’s University Belfast, the Geneva Observatory, the German Aerospace Center, and the University of Chile.

Using a full array of fully-robotic compact telescopes, this photometric survey is one of several projects meant to compliment the Kepler Space Telescope. Like Kepler, it monitors distant stars for signs of sudden dips in brightness, which are an indication of a planet passing in front of (aka. “transiting”) the star, relative to the observer.  When examining data obtained from NGTS-1, the first star to be found by the survey, they made a surprising discovery.

Based on the signal produced by its exoplanet (NGTS-1b), they determined that it was a gas giant roughly the same size as Jupiter and almost as massive (0.812 Jupiter masses). Its orbital period of 2.6 days also indicated that it orbits very close to its star – about 0.0326 AU – which makes it a “hot Jupiter”. Based on these parameters, the team also estimated that NGTS-1b experiences temperatures of approximately 800 K (530°C; 986 °F).

The discovery threw the team for a loop, as it was believed to be impossible for planets of this size to form around small, M-type stars. In accordance with current theories about planet formation, red dwarf stars are believed to be able to form rocky planets – as evidenced by the many that have been discovered around red dwarfs of late – but are unable to gather enough material to create Jupiter-sized planets.

Artist’s concept of Jupiter-sized exoplanet that orbits relatively close to its star (aka. a “hot Jupiter”). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

As Dr. Daniel Bayliss, an astronomer with the University of Geneva and the lead-author on the paper, commented in University of Warwick press release:

“The discovery of NGTS-1b was a complete surprise to us – such massive planets were not thought to exist around such small stars. This is the first exoplanet we have found with our new NGTS facility and we are already challenging the received wisdom of how planets form. Our challenge is to now find out how common these types of planets are in the Galaxy, and with the new NGTS facility we are well-placed to do just that.”

What is also impressive is the fact that the astronomers noticed the transit at all. Compared to other classes of stars, M-type stars are the smallest, coolest and dimmest. In the past, rocky bodies have been detected around them by measuring shifts in their position relative to Earth (aka. the Radial Velocity Method). These shifts are caused by the gravitational tug of one or more planets that cause the planet to “wobble” back and forth.

In short, the low light of an M-type star has made monitoring them for dips in brightness (aka. the Transit Method) highly impractical. However, using the NGTS’s red-sensitive cameras, the team was able to monitored patches of the night sky for many months. Over time, they noticed dips coming from NGTS-1 every 2.6 days, which indicated that a planet with a short orbital period was periodically passing in front of it.

Artist’s impression of the planet orbiting a red dwarf star. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

They then tracked the planet’s orbit around the star and combined the transit data with Radial Velocity measurements to determine its size, position and mass. As Professor Peter Wheatley (who leads NGTS) indicated, finding the planet was painstaking work. But in the end, its discovery could lead to the detection of many more gas giants around low-mass stars:

“NGTS-1b was difficult to find, despite being a monster of a planet, because its parent star is small and faint. Small stars are actually the most common in the universe, so it is possible that there are many of these giant planets waiting to found. Having worked for almost a decade to develop the NGTS telescope array, it is thrilling to see it picking out new and unexpected types of planets. I’m looking forward to seeing what other kinds of exciting new planets we can turn up.”

Within the known Universe, M-type stars are by far the most common, accounting for 75% of all stars in the Milky Way Galaxy alone. In the past, the discovery of rocky bodies around stars like Proxima Centauri, LHS 1140, GJ 625, and the seven rocky planets around TRAPPIST-1, led many in the astronomical community to conclude that red dwarf stars were the best place to look for Earth-like planets.

The discovery of a Hot Jupiter orbiting NGTS-1 is therefore seen as an indication that other red dwarf stars could have orbiting gas giants as well. Above all, this latest find once again demonstrates the importance of exoplanet research. With every find we make beyond our Solar System, the more we learn about the ways in which planets form and evolve.

Every discovery we make also advances our understanding of how likely we may be to discover life out there somewhere. For in the end, what greater scientific goal is there than determining whether or not we are alone in the Universe?

Further Reading: UofWarwick, RAS, MNRAS

Scientists Propose a New Kind of Planet: A Smashed Up Torus of Hot Vaporized Rock

Artist's impression of a Mars-sized object crashing into the Earth, starting the process that eventually created our Moon. Credit: Joe Tucciarone

There’s a new type of planet in town, though you won’t find it in well-aged solar systems like our own. It’s more of a stage of formation that planets like Earth can go through. And its existence helps explain the relationship between Earth and our Moon.

The new type of planet is a huge, spinning, donut-shaped mass of hot, vaporized rock, formed as planet-sized objects smash into each other. The pair of scientists behind the study explaining this new planet type have named it a ‘synestia.’ Simon Lock, a graduate student at Harvard University, and Sarah Stewart, a professor in the Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of California, Davis, say that Earth was at one time a synestia.

Rocky planets like Earth are accreted from smaller bodies over time. Objects with high energy and high angular momentum could form a synestia, a transient stage in planetary formation where vaporized rock orbits the rest of the body. In this image, each of the three stages has the same mass. Image: Simon Lock, Harvard University
Rocky planets like Earth are accreted from smaller bodies over time. Objects with high energy and high angular momentum could form a synestia, a transient stage in planetary formation where vaporized rock orbits the rest of the body. In this image, each of the three stages has the same mass. Image: Simon Lock, Harvard University

The current theory of planetary formation goes like this: When a star forms, the left-over material is in motion around the star. This left-over material is called a protoplanetary disk. The material coagulates into larger bodies as the smaller ones collide and join together.

As the bodies get larger and larger, the force of their collisions becomes greater and greater, and when two large bodies collided, their rocky material melts. Then, the newly created body cools, and becomes spherical. It’s understood that this is how Earth and the other rocky planets in our Solar System formed.

Lock and Stewart looked at this process and asked what would happen if the resulting body was spinning quickly.

When a body is spinning, the law of conservation of angular momentum comes into play. That law says that a spinning body will spin until an external torque slows it down. The often-used example from figure skating helps explain this.

If you’ve ever watched figure skaters, and who hasn’t, their actions are very instructive. When a single skater is spinning rapidly, she stretches out her arms to slow the rate of spin. When she folds her arms back into her body, she speeds up again. Her angular momentum is conserved.

This short video shows figure skaters and physics in action.

If you don’t like figure skating, this one uses the Earth to explain angular momentum.

Now take the example from a pair of figure skaters. When they’re both turning, and the two of them join together by holding each other’s hands and arms, their angular momentum is added together and conserved.

Replace two figure skaters with two planets, and this is what the two scientists behind the study wanted to model. What would happen if two large bodies with high energy and high angular momentum collided with each other?

If the two bodies had high enough temperatures and high enough angular momentum, a new type of planetary structure would form: the synestia. “We looked at the statistics of giant impacts, and we found that they can form a completely new structure,” Stewart said.

“We looked at the statistics of giant impacts, and we found that they can form a completely new structure.” – Professor Sarah Stewart, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences at the University of California, Davis.

As explained in a press release from the UC Davis, for a synestia to form, some of the vaporized material from the collision must go into orbit. When a sphere is solid, every point on it is rotating at the same rate, if not the same speed. But when some of the material is vaporized, its volume expands. If it expands enough, and if its moving fast enough, it leaves orbit and forms a huge disc-shaped synestia.

Other theories have proposed that two large enough bodies could form an orbiting molten mass after colliding. But if the two bodies had high enough energy and temperature to vaporize some of the rock, the resulting synestia would occupy a much larger space.

“The main issue with looking for synestias around other stars is that they don’t last a long time. These are transient, evolving objects that are made during planet formation.” – Professor Sarah Stewart, UC Davis.

These synestias likely wouldn’t last very long. They would cool quickly and condense back into rocky bodies. For a body the size of Earth, the synestia might only last one hundred years.

The synestia structure sheds some light on how moons are formed. The Earth and the Moon are very similar in terms of composition, so it’s likely they formed as a result of a collision. It’s possible that the Earth and Moon formed from the same synestia.

These synestias have been modelled, but they haven’t been observed. However, the James Webb Space Telescope will have the power to peer into protoplanetary disks and watch planets forming. Will it observe a synestia?

“These are transient, evolving objects that are made during planet formation.” – Professor Sarah Stewart, UC Davis

In an email exchange with Universe Today, Dr. Sarah Stewart of UC Davis, one of the scientists behind the study, told us that “The main issue with looking for synestias around other stars is that they don’t last a long time. These are transient, evolving objects that are made during planet formation.”

“So the best bet for finding a rocky synestia is young systems where the body is close to the star. For gas giant planets, they may form a synestia for a period of their formation. We are getting close to being able to image circumplanetary disks in other star systems.”

Once we have the ability to observe planets forming in their circumstellar disks, we may find that synestias are more common than rare. In fact, planets may go through the synestia stage multiple times. Dr. Stewart told us that “Based on the statistics presented in our paper, we expect that most (more than half) of rocky planets that form in a manner similar to Earth became synestias one or more times during the giant impact stage of accretion.”

Finally, the Missing Link in Planetary Formation!

The theory of how planets form has been something of an enduring mystery for scientists. While astronomers have a pretty good understanding of where planetary systems comes from – i.e. protoplanetary disks of dust and gas around new stars (aka. “Nebular Theory“) – a complete understanding of how these discs eventually become objects large enough to collapse under their own gravity has remained elusive.

But thanks to a new study by a team of researchers from France, Australia and the UK, it seems that the missing piece of the puzzle may finally have been found. Using a series of simulations, these researchers have shown how “dust traps” – i.e. regions where pebble-sized fragments could collect and stick together – are common enough to allow for the formation of planetesimals.

Their study, titled “Self-Induced Dust Traps: Overcoming Planet Formation Barriers“, appeared recently in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. Led by Dr. Jean-Francois Gonzalez – of the Lyon Astrophysics Research Center (CRAL) in France – the team examined the troublesome middle-stage of planetary formation that has plagued scientists.

An image of a protoplanetary disk, made using results from the new model, after the formation of a spontaneous dust trap, visible as a bright dust ring. Gas is depicted in blue and dust in red. Credit: Jean-Francois Gonzalez.

Until recently, the process by which protoplanetary disks of dust and gas aggregate to form peddle-sized objects, and the process by which planetesimals (objects that are one hundred meters or more in diameter) form planetary cores, have been well understood. But the process that bridges these two – where pebbles come together to form planetesimals – has remained unknown.

Part of the problem has been the fact that the Solar System, which has been our only frame of reference for centuries, formed billions of years ago. But thanks to recent discoveries (3453 confirmed exoplanets and counting), astronomers have had lots of opportunities to study other systems that are in various stages of formation. As Dr. Gonzalez explained in a Royal Astronomical Society press release:

“Until now we have struggled to explain how pebbles can come together to form planets, and yet we’ve now discovered huge numbers of planets in orbit around other stars. That set us thinking about how to solve this mystery.”

In the past, astronomers believed that “dust traps” – which are integral to planet formation – could only exist within certain environments. In these high-pressure regions, large grains of dust are slowed down to the point where they are able to come together. These regions are extremely important since they counteract the two main obstacles to planetary formation, which are drag and high-speed collisions.

Artist’s impression of the planets in our solar system, along with the Sun (at bottom). Credit: NASA

Drag is caused by the effect gas has on dust grains, which causes them to slow down and eventually drift into the central star (where they are consumed). As for high-speed collisions, this is what causes large pebbles to smash into each other and break apart, thus reversing the aggregation process. Dust traps are therefore needed to ensure that dust grains are slowed down just enough so that they won’t annihilate each other when they collide.

To see just how common these dust traps were, Dr. Gonzalez and his colleagues conducted a series of computer simulations that took into account how dust in a protoplanetary disk could exert drag on the gas component – a process known as “aerodynamic drag back-reaction”. Whereas gas typically has an arresting influence on dust particles, in particularly dusty rings, the opposite can be true.

This effect has been largely ignored by astronomers up until recently, since its generally quite negligible. But as the team noted, it is an important factor in protoplanetary disks, which are known for being incredibly dusty environments. In this scenario, the effect of back-reaction is to slow inward-moving dust grains and push gas outwards where it forms high-pressure regions – i.e. “dust traps”.

Once they accounted for these effects, their simulations showed how planets form in three basic stages. In the first stage, dust grains grow in size and move inwards towards the central star. In the second, the now pebble-sized larger grains accumulate and slow down. In the third and final stage, the gas is pushed outwards by the back-reaction, creating the dust trap regions where it accumulates.

Illustration showing the stages of the formation mechanism for dust traps. Credit: © Volker Schurbert.

These traps then allow the pebbles to aggregate to form planetesimals, and eventually planet-sized worlds. With this model, astronomers now have a solid idea of how planetary formation goes from dusty disks to planetesimals coming together. In addition to resolving a key question as to how the Solar System came to be, this sort of research could prove vital in the study of exoplanets.

Ground-based and space-based observatories have already noted the presence of dark and bright rings that are forming in protoplanetary disks around distant stars – which are believed to be dust traps. These systems could provide astronomers with a chance to test this new model, as they watch planets slowly come together. As Dr. Gonzalez indicated:

“We were thrilled to discover that, with the right ingredients in place, dust traps can form spontaneously, in a wide range of environments. This is a simple and robust solution to a long standing problem in planet formation.”

Further Reading: Royal Astronomical Society, MNRAS

Juno Snaps Final View of Jovian System Ahead of ‘Independence Day’ Orbital Insertion Fireworks Tonight – Watch Live

This is the final view taken by the JunoCam instrument on NASA's Juno spacecraft before Juno's instruments were powered down in preparation for orbit insertion. Juno obtained this color view on June 29, 2016, at a distance of 3.3 million miles (5.3 million kilometers) from Jupiter.  Credit:  Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS
This is the final view taken by the JunoCam instrument on NASA’s Juno spacecraft before Juno’s instruments were powered down in preparation for orbit insertion. Juno obtained this color view on June 29, 2016, at a distance of 3.3 million miles (5.3 million kilometers) from Jupiter. See timelapse movie below. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

After a nearly 5 year odyssey across the solar system, NASA’s solar powered Juno orbiter is all set to ignite its main engine late tonight and set off a powerful charge of do-or-die fireworks on America’s ‘Independence Day’ required to place the probe into orbit around Jupiter – the ‘King of the Planets.’

To achieve orbit, Juno must will perform a suspenseful maneuver known as ‘Jupiter Orbit Insertion’ or JOI tonight, Monday, July 4, upon which the entire mission and its fundamental science hinges. There are no second chances!

You can be part of all the excitement and tension building up to and during that moment, which is just hours away – and experience the ‘Joy of JOI’ by tuning into NASA TV tonight!

Watch the live webcast on NASA TV featuring the top scientists and NASA officials starting at 10:30 p.m. EDT (7:30 p.m. PST, 0230 GMT) – direct from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory: https://www.nasa.gov/nasatv

Illustration of NASA's Juno spacecraft firing its main engine to slow down and go into orbit around Jupiter. Lockheed Martin built the Juno spacecraft for NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
Illustration of NASA’s Juno spacecraft firing its main engine to slow down and go into orbit around Jupiter. Lockheed Martin built the Juno spacecraft for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Credit: NASA/Lockheed Martin

And for a breathtaking warm-up act, Juno’s on board public outreach JunoCam camera snapped a final gorgeous view of the Jovian system showing Jupiter and its four largest moons, dancing around the largest planet in our solar system.

The newly released color image was taken on June 29, 2016, at a distance of 3.3 million miles (5.3 million kilometers) from Jupiter – just before the probe went into autopilot mode.

It shows a dramatic view of the clouds bands of Jupiter, dominating a spectacular scene that includes the giant planet’s four largest moons — Io, Europa, Ganymede and Callisto.

NASA also released this new time-lapse JunoCam movie today:

Video caption: Juno’s Approach to Jupiter: After nearly five years traveling through space to its destination, NASA’s Juno spacecraft will arrive in orbit around Jupiter on July 4, 2016. This video shows a peek of what the spacecraft saw as it closed in on its destination. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

The spacecraft is approaching Jupiter over its north pole, affording an unprecedented perspective on the Jovian system – “which looks like a mini solar system,” said Juno Principal Investigator and chief scientist Scott Bolton, from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in San Antonio, Tx, at today’s media briefing at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif.

“The deep interior of Jupiter is nearly unknown. That’s what we are trying to learn about.”

The 35-minute-long main engine burn is preprogrammed to start at 11:18 p.m. EDT (8:18 p.m. PST, 0318 GMT). It is scheduled to last until approximately 11:53 p.m. (8:53 p.m. PST, 0353 GMT).

Juno mission briefing July 4, 2016 at JPL by Jim Green, Scott Bolton, Rick Nybakken and Heidi Becker.  Credit: Roland Keller
Juno mission briefing July 4, 2016 at JPL by Jim Green, Scott Bolton, Rick Nybakken and Heidi Becker. Credit: Roland Keller/rkeusa.blogspot.com

All of the science instruments were turned off on June 30 to keep the focus on the nail-biting insertion maneuver and preserve battery power, said Bolton. Solar powered Juno is pointed away from the sun during the engine firing.

JOI is required to slow the spacecraft so it can be captured into the gas giant’s orbit as it closes in over the north pole.

Initially the spacecraft will enter a long, looping polar orbit lasting about 53 days. That highly elliptical orbit will quickly be trimmed to 14 days for the science orbits.

The orbits are designed to minimize contact with Jupiter’s extremely intense radiation belts. The science instruments are shielded inside a ½ thick vault built of Titanium to protect them from the utterly deadly radiation – of some 20,000,000 rads.

Artist's concept of NASA's Juno spacecraft crossing the orbits of Jupiter's four largest moons -- Callisto, Gaynmede, Europa and Io -- on its approach to Jupiter. Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s concept of NASA’s Juno spacecraft crossing the orbits of Jupiter’s four largest moons — Callisto, Gaynmede, Europa and Io — on its approach to Jupiter.
Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Juno is the fastest spacecraft ever to arrive at Jupiter and is moving at over 165,000 mph relative to Earth and 130,000 mph relative to Jupiter.

After a five-year and 2.8 Billion kilometer (1.7 Billion mile) outbound trek to the Jovian system and the largest planet in our solar system and an intervening Earth flyby speed boost, the moment of truth for Juno is now inexorably at hand.

Signals traveling at the speed of light take 48 minutes to reach Earth, said Rick Nybakken, Juno project manager from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, at the media briefing.

So the main engine burn, which is fully automated, will already be over for some 13 minutes before the first indications of the outcome reach Earth via a series of Doppler shifts and tones. It is about 540 million miles (869 million kilometers) from Earth.

“By the time the burn is complete, we won’t even hear about it until 13 minutes later.”

“The engine burn will slow Juno by 542 meters/second (1,212 mph) and is fully automated as it approaches over Jupiter’s North Pole,” explained Nybakken.

“The long five year cruise enabled us to really learn about the spacecraft and how it operates.”

As it travels through space, the basketball court sized Juno is spinning like a windmill with its 3 giant solar arrays.

“Juno is also the farthest mission to rely on solar power. The solar panels are 60 square meters in size. And although they provide only 1/25th the power at Earth, they still provide over 500 watts of power at Jupiter.”

Rick Nybakken, Juno project manager at JPL illustrates how Juno will enter orbit around Jupiter during Juno mission briefing on July 4, 2016 at JPL. Credit: Roland Keller
Rick Nybakken, Juno project manager at JPL illustrates how Juno will enter orbit around Jupiter during Juno mission briefing on July 4, 2016 at JPL. Credit: Roland Keller/rkeusa.blogspot.com

The protective cover that shields Juno’s main engine from micrometeorites and interstellar dust was opened on June 20.

During a 20 month long science mission – entailing 37 orbits lasting 14 days each – the probe will plunge to within about 3000 miles of the turbulent cloud tops and collect unprecedented new data that will unveil the hidden inner secrets of Jupiter’s origin and evolution.

“Jupiter is the Rosetta Stone of our solar system,” says Bolton. “It is by far the oldest planet, contains more material than all the other planets, asteroids and comets combined and carries deep inside it the story of not only the solar system but of us. Juno is going there as our emissary — to interpret what Jupiter has to say.”

During the orbits, Juno will probe beneath the obscuring cloud cover of Jupiter and study its auroras to learn more about the planet’s origins, structure, atmosphere and magnetosphere.

The $1.1 Billion Juno was launched on Aug. 5, 2011 from Cape Canaveral, Florida atop the most powerful version of the Atlas V rocket augmented by 5 solid rocket boosters and built by United Launch Alliance (ULA). That same Atlas V 551 version just launched MUOS-5 for the US Navy on June 24.

The Juno spacecraft was built by prime contractor Lockheed Martin in Denver.

Juno soars skyward to Jupiter on Aug. 5, 2011 from launch pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 12:25 p.m. EDT. View from the VAB roof. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com
Juno soars skyward to Jupiter on Aug. 5, 2011 from launch pad 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 12:25 p.m. EDT. View from the VAB roof. Credit: Ken Kremer/kenkremer.com

Along the way Juno made a return trip to Earth on Oct. 9, 2013 for a flyby gravity assist speed boost that enabled the trek to Jupiter.

The flyby provided 70% of the velocity compared to the Atlas V launch, said Nybakken.

During the Earth flyby (EFB), the science team observed Earth using most of Juno’s nine science instruments since the slingshot also serves as an important dress rehearsal and key test of the spacecraft’s instruments, systems and flight operations teams.

Juno also went into safe mode – something the team must avoid during JOI.

What lessons were learned from the safe mode event and applied to JOI, I asked?

“We had the battery at 50% state of charge during the EFB and didn’t accurately predict the sag on the battery when we went into eclipse. We now have a validated high fidelity power model which would have predicted that sag and we would have increased the battery voltage,” Nybakken told Universe Today

“It will not happen at JOI as we don’t go into eclipse and are at 100% SOC. Plus the instruments are off which increases our power margins.”

Junocam also took some striking images of Earth as it sped over Argentina, South America and the South Atlantic Ocean and came within 347 miles (560 kilometers) of the surface.

For example the dazzling portrait of our Home Planet high over the South American coastline and the Atlantic Ocean.

For a hint of what’s to come, see our colorized Junocam mosaic of land, sea and swirling clouds, created by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo

NASA's Juno probe captured the image data for this composite picture during its Earth flyby on Oct. 9 over Argentina,  South America and the southern Atlantic Ocean. Raw imagery was reconstructed and aligned by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo, and false-color blue has been added to the view taken by a near-infrared filter that is typically used to detect methane. Credit: NASA/JPL/SwRI/MSSS/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo
NASA’s Juno probe captured the image data for this composite picture during its Earth flyby on Oct. 9 over Argentina, South America and the southern Atlantic Ocean. Raw imagery was reconstructed and aligned by Ken Kremer and Marco Di Lorenzo, and false-color blue has been added to the view taken by a near-infrared filter that is typically used to detect methane. Credit: NASA/JPL/SwRI/MSSS/Ken Kremer/Marco Di Lorenzo

The last NASA spacecraft to orbit Jupiter was Galileo in 1995. It explored the Jovian system until 2003.

Stay tuned here for Ken’s continuing Earth and Planetary science and human spaceflight news.

Ken Kremer

Infographic about Juno’s Jupiter Orbit Insertion (JOI) maneuver on July 4, 2016.   Credit: NASA/Lockheed Martin
Infographic about Juno’s Jupiter Orbit Insertion (JOI) maneuver on July 4, 2016. Credit: NASA/Lockheed Martin