The Giant Planets in the Solar System Stunted the Growth of Mars

For centuries, astronomers and scientists have sought to understand how our Solar System came to be. Since that time, two theories have become commonly-accepted that explain how it formed and evolved over time. These are the Nebular Hypothesis and the Nice Model, respectively. Whereas the former contends that the Sun and planets formed from a large cloud of dust and gas, the latter maintains the giant planets have migrated since their formation.

This is what has led to the Solar System as we know it today. However, an enduring mystery about these theories is how Mars came to be the way it is. Why, for example, is it significantly smaller than Earth and inhospitable to life as we know it when all indications show that it should be comparable in size? According to a new study by an international team of scientists, the migration of the giant planets could have been what made the difference.

For over a decade, astronomers have been operating under the assumption that shortly after the formation of the Solar System, the gas and ice giants of the outer Solar System (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune) began to migrate outward. This is the substance of the Nice Model, which asserts that this migration had a profound effect on the evolution of the Solar System and the formation of the terrestrial planets.

This model – named for the location of the Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur (in Nice, France), where it was initially developed – began as an evolutionary model that helped explain the observed distributions of small objects like comets and asteroids. As Matt Clement, a graduate student in the HL Dodge Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Oklahoma and the lead author on the paper, explained to Universe Today via email:

“In the model, the giant planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune) originally formed much closer to the Sun.  In order to reach their current orbital locations, the entire solar system undergoes a period of orbital instability.  During this unstable period, the size and the shape of the giant planet’s orbits change rapidly.”

For the sake of their study, which was recently published in the scientific journal Icarus under the title “Mars Growth Stunted by an Early Giant Planet Instability“, the team expanded on the Nice Model. Through a series of dynamical simulations, they attempted to show how, during the early Solar System, the growth of Mars was halted thanks to the orbital instabilities of the giant planets.

The purpose of their study was also to address a flaw in the Nice Model, which is how the terrestrial planets could have survived a serious shake up of the Solar System. In the original version of the Nice Model, the instability of the giant planets occurred a few hundred million years after the planets formed, which coincided with the Late Heavy Bombardment – when the inner Solar System was bombarded by a disproportionately large number of asteroids.

This period is evidenced by spike in the Moon’s cratering record, which was inferred from an abundance of samples from the Apollo missions with similar geological dates. As Clement explained:

“A problem with this is that it is difficult for the terrestrial planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars) to survive the violent instability without being ejected out of the solar system or colliding with one another. Now that we have better, high resolution images of lunar craters and more accurate methods for dating the Apollo samples, the evidence for a spike in lunar cratering rates is diminishing. Our study investigated whether moving the instability earlier, while the inner terrestrial planets were still forming, could help them survive the instability, and also explain why Mars is so small relative to the Earth.”

Clement was joined by Nathan A. Kaib, a OU astrophysics professor, as well as Sean N. Raymond of the University of Bordeaux and Kevin J. Walsh from the Southwest Research Institute. Together, they used the computing resources of the OU Supercomputing Center for Education and Research (OSCER) and the Blue Waters supercomputing project to perform 800 dynamical simulations of the Nice model to determine how it would impact Mars.

These simulations incorporated recent geological evidence from Mars and Earth that indicate that Mars’ formation period was about 1/10th that of Earth’s. This has led to the theory that Mars was left behind as a “stranded planetary embryo” during the formation of the Sun’s inner planets. As Prof. Kaib explained to Universe Today via email, this study was therefore intended to test how Mars emerged from planetary formation as a planetary embryo:

“We simulated the “giant impact phase” of terrestrial planet formation (the final stage of the formation process). At the beginning of this phase, the inner Solar System (0.5-4 AU) consists of a disk of about 100 moon-to-mars-sized planetary embryos embedded in a sea of much smaller, more numerous rocky planetesimals. Over the course of 100-200 million years the bodies making up this system collide and merge into a handful (typically 2-5) rocky planetary mass bodies. Normally, these types of simple initial conditions build planets on Mars-like orbits that are about 10x more massive than Mars. However, when the terrestrial planet formation process is interrupted by the Nice model instability, many of the planet building blocks near the Mars region are lost or tossed into the Sun. This limits the growth of Mars-like planets and produces a closer match to our actual inner solar system.”

Size comparison between Earth and Mars. Credit: NASA

What they found was that this revised timeline explained the disparity between Mars and Earth. In short, Mars and Earth vary considerably in size, mass and density because the giant planets became unstable very early in the Solar System’s history. In the end, this is what allowed Earth to become the only life-bearing terrestrial planet in the Solar System, and for Mars to become the cold, desiccated and thinly-atmosphered place that it is today.

As Prof. Kaib explained, this is not the only model for explaining the disparity between Earth and Mars, but the evidence all fits:

“Without this instability, Mars likely would have had a mass closer to Earth’s and would be a very different, perhaps more Earth-like, planet compared to what it is today,” he said. “I should also say that this is not the only mechanism capable of explaining the low mass of Mars. However, we already know that the Nice model does an excellent job of reproducing many features of the outer Solar System, and if it occurs at the right time in the Solar System’s history it also ends up explaining our inner Solar System.”

This study could also have drastic implications when it comes to the study of extra-solar systems. At present, our models for how planets form and evolve are based on what we have been able to learn from our own Solar System. Hence, by learning more about how gas giants and terrestrial planets grew and assumed their current orbits, scientists will be able to create more comprehensive models of how life-bearing planets could merge around other stars.

It certainly would help narrow the search for “Earth-like” planets and (dare we dream?) planets that support life.

Further Reading: University of Oklahoma, Icarus

Was a Fifth Giant Planet Expelled from Our Solar System?

[/caption]

Earth’s place in the “Goldilocks” zone of our solar system may be the result of the expulsion of a fifth giant planet from our solar system during its first 600 million years, according to a recent journal publication.

“We have all sorts of clues about the early evolution of the solar system,” said author Dr. David Nesvorny of the Southwest Research Institute. “They come from the analysis of the trans-Neptunian population of small bodies known as the Kuiper Belt, and from the lunar cratering record.”

Nesvorny and his team used the clues they had to build computer simulations of the early solar system and test their theories. What resulted was an early solar system model that has quite a different configuration than today, and a jumbling of planets that may have given Earth the “preferred” spot for life to evolve.


Researchers interpret the clues as evidence that the orbits of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune were affected by a dynamical instability when our solar system was only about half a billion years old. This instability is believed to have helped increase the distance between the giant planets, along with scattering smaller bodies. The scattering of small bodies pushed objects both inward, and outward with some objects ending up in the Kuiper Belt and others impacting the terrestrial planets and the Moon. Jupiter is believed to have scattered objects outward as it moved in towards the sun.

One problem with this interpretation is that slow changes to Jupiter’s orbit would most likely add too much momentum to the orbits of the terrestrial planets. The additional momentum would have possibly caused a collision of Earth with Venus or Mars.

“Colleagues suggested a clever way around this problem,” said Nesvorny. “They proposed that Jupiter’s orbit quickly changed when Jupiter scattered off of Uranus or Neptune during the dynamical instability in the outer solar system.”

Basically if Jupiter’s early migration “jumps,” the orbital coupling between the terrestrial planets and Jupiter is weaker, and less harmful to the inner solar system.

Animation showing the evolution of the planetary system from 20 million years before the ejection to 30 million years after. Five initial planets are shown by red circles, small bodies are in green.
After the fifth planet is ejected, the remaining four planets stabilize after a while, and looks like the outer solar system in the end, with giant planets at 5, 10, 20 and 30 astronomical units.
Click image to view animation. Image Credit: Southwest Research Institute

Nesvorny and his team performed thousands of computer simulations that attempted to model the early solar system in an effort to test the “jumping-Jupiter” theory. Nesvorny found that Jupiter did in fact jump due to gravitational interactions from Uranus or Neptune, but when Jupiter jumped, either Uranus or Neptune were expelled from the solar system. “Something was clearly wrong,” he said.

Based on his early results, Nesvorny added a fifth giant planet, similar to Uranus or Neptune to his simulations. Once he ran the reconfigured simulations, everything fell into place. The simulation showed the fifth planet ejected from the solar system by Jupiter, with four giant planets remaining, and the inner, terrestrial planets untouched.

Nesvorny concluded with, “The possibility that the solar system had more than four giant planets initially, and ejected some, appears to be conceivable in view of the recent discovery of a large number of free-floating planets in interstellar space, indicating the planet ejection process could be a common occurrence.”

If you’d like to read Nesvorny’s full paper, you can access it at: http://arxiv.org/pdf/1109.2949v1

Source: Southwest Research Institute Press Release

Giant Planets

[/caption]

While the inner four planets seem large, they are nothing compared to the four outer planets, which are also known as gas giants or Jovian planets. The four giant planets in our Solar System are Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.

Jupiter is the largest planet in our Solar System, and it truly is a giant planet. Jupiter is so large that you could fit 1321 Earths inside the planet. It is a gas giant, which means that it is comprised almost entirely of gas with a liquid core of heavy metals. Since none of the gas giants has a solid surface, you cannot stand on any of these planets, nor can spacecraft land on them. Another common characteristic of the giant planets is that they all have dozens of moons. In fact, Jupiter has 63 moons that have been discovered so far.  

All of the giant planets in our Solar System have rings, but Saturn’s rings are by far the most famous of any. This planet’s ring system is composed of rock, dust, and other particles. The other planetary ring systems are made of similar elements.

Uranus and Neptune are also gas giants, but instead of just helium and hydrogen, they also have significant amounts of ices in their atmospheres. These ices include water, methane, and ammonia. It is the methane in the atmospheres of Uranus and Neptune that give the planets their blue color. Uranus and Neptune are also known as ice giants because of the proportion of ices in their atmospheres.

Giant planets are not limited to our Solar System either. In fact, astronomers have discovered many Jupiter-like planets in other solar systems. For example, in 2007, a group of British astronomers discovered three gas giants that are heavier than Jupiter is. These gas giants are much closer to their star than our Solar System’s gas giants are to the Sun. Scientists think that this may be one reason why these extrasolar planets are heavier, suggesting that only heavier planets can survive closer to a star. Because these planets are so much closer to their sun, they are much hotter than Jupiter and our Solar System’s other gas giants are.

These are just a handful of the gas giants discovered in different solar systems. Astronomers have discovered other extrasolar planets much bigger than Jupiter. Since all of the first extrasolar planets found were gas giants similar to Jupiter, astronomers began to despair of ever finding Earth-like planets that could support life. Recently though, astronomers have discovered different types of extrasolar planets, raising their hopes of finding life on other planets.

Universe Today has a number of articles to check out on gas giants and how big planets get.

You should also take a look at these articles on gas giants and British scientists discover giant planets hotter and heavier than Jupiter.

Astronomy Cast has an episode on extrasolar planets, hot Jupiters, and pulsar planets you should not miss.