How Was the Solar System Formed? – The Nebular Hypothesis

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Since time immemorial, humans have been searching for the answer of how the Universe came to be. However, it has only been within the past few centuries, with the Scientific Revolution, that the predominant theories have been empirical in nature. It was during this time, from the 16th to 18th centuries, that astronomers and physicists began to formulate evidence-based explanations of how our Sun, the planets, and the Universe began.

When it comes to the formation of our Solar System, the most widely accepted view is known as the Nebular Hypothesis. In essence, this theory states that the Sun, the planets, and all other objects in the Solar System formed from nebulous material billions of years ago. Originally proposed to explain the origin of the Solar System, this theory has gone on to become a widely accepted view of how all star systems came to be.

Nebular Hypothesis:

According to this theory, the Sun and all the planets of our Solar System began as a giant cloud of molecular gas and dust. Then, about 4.57 billion years ago, something happened that caused the cloud to collapse. This could have been the result of a passing star, or shock waves from a supernova, but the end result was a gravitational collapse at the center of the cloud.

From this collapse, pockets of dust and gas began to collect into denser regions. As the denser regions pulled in more and more matter, conservation of momentum caused it to begin rotating, while increasing pressure caused it to heat up. Most of the material ended up in a ball at the center while the rest of the matter flattened out into disk that circled around it. While the ball at the center formed the Sun, the rest of the material would form into the protoplanetary disc.

The planets formed by accretion from this disc, in which dust and gas gravitated together and coalesced to form ever larger bodies. Due to their higher boiling points, only metals and silicates could exist in solid form closer to the Sun, and these would eventually form the terrestrial planets of Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. Because metallic elements only comprised a very small fraction of the solar nebula, the terrestrial planets could not grow very large.

In contrast, the giant planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune) formed beyond the point between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter where material is cool enough for volatile icy compounds to remain solid (i.e. the Frost Line). The ices that formed these planets were more plentiful than the metals and silicates that formed the terrestrial inner planets, allowing them to grow massive enough to capture large atmospheres of hydrogen and helium. Leftover debris that never became planets congregated in regions such as the Asteroid Belt, Kuiper Belt, and Oort Cloud.

Artist's impression of the early Solar System, where collision between particles in an accretion disc led to the formation of planetesimals and eventually planets. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Artist’s impression of the early Solar System, where collision between particles in an accretion disc led to the formation of planetesimals and eventually planets. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Within 50 million years, the pressure and density of hydrogen in the center of the protostar became great enough for it to begin thermonuclear fusion. The temperature, reaction rate, pressure, and density increased until hydrostatic equilibrium was achieved. At this point, the Sun became a main-sequence star. Solar wind from the Sun created the heliosphere and swept away the remaining gas and dust from the protoplanetary disc into interstellar space, ending the planetary formation process.

History of the Nebular Hypothesis:

The idea that the Solar System originated from a nebula was first proposed in 1734 by Swedish scientist and theologian Emanual Swedenborg. Immanuel Kant, who was familiar with Swedenborg’s work, developed the theory further and published it in his Universal Natural History and Theory of the Heavens (1755). In this treatise, he argued that gaseous clouds (nebulae) slowly rotate, gradually collapsing and flattening due to gravity and forming stars and planets.

A similar but smaller and more detailed model was proposed by Pierre-Simon Laplace in his treatise Exposition du system du monde (Exposition of the system of the world), which he released in 1796. Laplace theorized that the Sun originally had an extended hot atmosphere throughout the Solar System, and that this “protostar cloud” cooled and contracted. As the cloud spun more rapidly, it threw off material that eventually condensed to form the planets.

This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows Sh 2-106, or S106 for short. This is a compact star forming region in the constellation Cygnus (The Swan). A newly-formed star called S106 IR is shrouded in dust at the centre of the image, and is responsible for the surrounding gas cloud’s hourglass-like shape and the turbulence visible within. Light from glowing hydrogen is coloured blue in this image. Credit: NASA/ESA
The Sh 2-106 Nebula (or S106 for short), a compact star forming region in the constellation Cygnus (The Swan). Credit: NASA/ESA

The Laplacian nebular model was widely accepted during the 19th century, but it had some rather pronounced difficulties. The main issue was angular momentum distribution between the Sun and planets, which the nebular model could not explain. In addition, Scottish scientist James Clerk Maxwell (1831 – 1879) asserted that different rotational velocities between the inner and outer parts of a ring could not allow for condensation of material.

It was also rejected by astronomer Sir David Brewster (1781 – 1868), who stated that:

“those who believe in the Nebular Theory consider it as certain that our Earth derived its solid matter and its atmosphere from a ring thrown from the Solar atmosphere, which afterwards contracted into a solid terraqueous sphere, from which the Moon was thrown off by the same process… [Under such a view] the Moon must necessarily have carried off water and air from the watery and aerial parts of the Earth and must have an atmosphere.”

By the early 20th century, the Laplacian model had fallen out of favor, prompting scientists to seek out new theories. However, it was not until the 1970s that the modern and most widely accepted variant of the nebular hypothesis – the solar nebular disk model (SNDM) – emerged. Credit for this goes to Soviet astronomer Victor Safronov and his book Evolution of the protoplanetary cloud and formation of the Earth and the planets (1972). In this book, almost all major problems of the planetary formation process were formulated and many were solved.

For example, the SNDM model has been successful in explaining the appearance of accretion discs around young stellar objects. Various simulations have also demonstrated that the accretion of material in these discs leads to the formation of a few Earth-sized bodies. Thus the origin of terrestrial planets is now considered to be an almost solved problem.

While originally applied only to the Solar System, the SNDM was subsequently thought by theorists to be at work throughout the Universe, and has been used to explain the formation of many of the exoplanets that have been discovered throughout our galaxy.

Problems:

Although the nebular theory is widely accepted, there are still problems with it that astronomers have not been able to resolve. For example, there is the problem of tilted axes. According to the nebular theory, all planets around a star should be tilted the same way relative to the ecliptic. But as we have learned, the inner planets and outer planets have radically different axial tilts.

Whereas the inner planets range from almost 0 degree tilt, others (like Earth and Mars) are tilted significantly (23.4° and 25°, respectively), outer planets have tilts that range from Jupiter’s minor tilt of 3.13°, to Saturn and Neptune’s more pronounced tilts (26.73° and 28.32°), to Uranus’ extreme tilt of 97.77°, in which its poles are consistently facing towards the Sun.

The latest list of potentially habitable exoplanets, courtesy of The Planetary Habitability Laboratory. Credit: phl.upr.edu
A list of potentially habitable exoplanets, courtesy of The Planetary Habitability Laboratory. Credit: phl.upr.edu

Also, the study of extrasolar planets have allowed scientists to notice irregularities that cast doubt on the nebular hypothesis. Some of these irregularities have to do with the existence of “hot Jupiters” that orbit closely to their stars with periods of just a few days. Astronomers have adjusted the nebular hypothesis to account for some of these problems, but have yet to address all outlying questions.

Alas, it seems that it questions that have to do with origins that are the toughest to answer. Just when we think we have a satisfactory explanation, there remain those troublesome issues it just can’t account for. However, between our current models of star and planet formation, and the birth of our Universe, we have come a long way. As we learn more about neighboring star systems and explore more of the cosmos, our models are likely to mature further.

We have written many articles about the Solar System here at Universe Today. Here’s The Solar System, Did our Solar System Start with a Little Bang?, and What was Here Before the Solar System?

For more information, be sure to check out the origin of the Solar System and how the Sun and planets formed.

Astronomy Cast also has an episode on the subject – Episode 12: Where do Baby Stars Come From?

Where Did Earth’s Water Come From?

Anyone who’s ever seen a map or a globe easily knows that the surface of our planet is mostly covered by liquid water — about 71%, by most estimates* — and so it’s not surprising that all Earthly life as we know it depends, in some form or another, on water. (Our own bodies are composed of about 55-60% of the stuff.) But how did it get here in the first place? Based on current understanding of how the Solar System formed, primordial Earth couldn’t have developed with its own water supply; this close to the Sun there just wouldn’t have been enough water knocking about. Left to its own devices Earth should be a dry world, yet it’s not (thankfully for us and pretty much everything else living here.) So where did all the wet stuff come from?

As it turns out, Earth’s water probably wasn’t made, it was delivered. Check out the video above from MinuteEarth to learn more.

*71% of Earth’s surface, yes, but actually less total than you might think. Read more.

MinuteEarth (and MinutePhysics) is created by Henry Reich, with Alex Reich, Peter Reich, Emily Elert, and Ever Salazar. Music by Nathaniel Schroeder.

UPDATE March 2, 2014: recent studies support an “alien” origin of Earth’s water from meteorites, but perhaps much earlier in its formation rather than later. Read more from the Harvard Gazette here.

Isotopic Evidence of the Moon’s Violent Origins

Artist’s impression of an impact of two planet-sized worlds (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Scientists have uncovered a history of violence hidden within lunar rocks, further evidence that our large, lovely Moon was born of a cataclysmic collision between worlds billions of years ago.

Using samples gathered during several Apollo missions as well as a lunar meteorite that had fallen to Earth (and using Martian meteorites as comparisons) researchers have observed a marked depletion in lunar rocks of lighter isotopes, including those of zinc — a telltale element that can be “a powerful tracer of the volatile histories of planets.”

The research utilized an advanced mass spectroscopy instrument to measure the ratios of specific isotopes present in the lunar samples. The spectrometer’s high level of precision allows for data not possible even five years ago.

Scientists have been looking for this kind of sorting by mass, called isotopic fractionation, since the Apollo missions first brought Moon rocks to Earth in the 1970s, and Frédéric Moynier, PhD, assistant professor of Earth and Planetary Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis — together with PhD student, Randal Paniello, and colleague James Day of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography — are the first to find it.

The team’s findings support a now-widely-accepted hypothesis — called the Giant Impact Theory, first suggested by PSI scientists William K. Hartmann and Donald Davis in 1975 — that the Moon was created from a collision between early Earth and a Mars-sized protoplanet about 4.5 billion years ago. The effects of the impact eventually formed the Moon and changed the evolution of our planet forever — possibly even proving crucial to the development of life on Earth.

(What would a catastrophic event like that have looked like? Probably something like this:)

Read more: What’s the Moon Made Of? Earth, Most Likely.

“This is compelling evidence of extreme volatile depletion of the moon,” said Scripps researcher James Day, a member of the team. “How do you remove all of the volatiles from a planet, or in this case a planetary body? You require some kind of wholesale melting event of the moon to provide the heat necessary to evaporate the zinc.”

In the team’s paper, published in the October 18 issue of Nature, the researchers suggest that the only way for such lunar volatiles to be absent on such a large scale would be evaporation resulting from a massive impact event.

“When a rock is melted and then evaporated, the light isotopes enter the vapor phase faster than the heavy isotopes, so you end up with a vapor enriched in the light isotopes and a solid residue enriched in the heavier isotopes. If you lose the vapor, the residue will be enriched in the heavy isotopes compared to the starting material,” explains Moynier.

The fact that similar isotopic fractionation has been found in lunar samples gathered from many different locations indicates a widespread global event, and not something limited to any specific regional effect.

The next step is finding out why Earth’s crust doesn’t show an absence of similar volatiles, an investigation that may lead to clues to where Earth’s surface water came from.

“Where did all the water on Earth come from?” asked Day. “This is a very important question because if we are looking for life on other planets we have to recognize that similar conditions are probably required. So understanding how planets obtain such conditions is critical for understanding how life ultimately occurs on a planet.”

“The work also has implications for the origin of the Earth,”  adds Moynier, “because the origin of the Moon was a big part of the origin of the Earth.”

Read more on the Washington University news release and at the UC San Diego news center.

Inset image: Cross-polarized transmitted-light image of a lunar rock. Photo by James Day, Scripps/UCSD

Abiogenesis

What are Fossils

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How did life on Earth arise? Scientific efforts to answer that question are called abiogenesis. More formally, abiogenesis is a theory, or set of theories, concerning how life on Earth began (but excluding panspermia).

Note that while abiogenesis and evolution are related, they are distinct (evolution says nothing about how life began; abiogenesis says nothing about how life evolves).

Intensive study of the Earth’s rocks has turned up lots and lots of evidence that some kinds of prokaryotes lived happily on Earth about 3.5 billion years ago (and there’re also pointers to the existence of life on Earth in the oldest rocks). So, if life arose on Earth, it did so from the chemicals in the water, air, and rocks of the early Earth … and in no more than a few hundred million years.

Because there are no sedimentary rocks older than about 3.7 billion years (and no metamorphic ones older than about 3.9 billion years), and because the oldest such rocks already contain evidence that there was life on Earth then, testing abiogenesis theories must be done by means other than geological.

There is a long history of attempts to create various organic molecules – such as amino acids – from simple precursors such as carbon dioxide, ammonia, and water, in conditions which simulate those of the early Earth. Those of Miller and Urey, in 1953, are the most famous (and the first).

It turns out that it’s pretty easy to form many kinds of organic molecules, in a wide range of environments … so the focus of research today is on how life could arise from any particular brew. And the hard part is how reliable self-replication get going (if you can make some sort of primitive cell in a test tube, it isn’t a form of life if it can’t reproduce itself!). So far, it seems that RNA and DNA cannot have been involved (too hard to form and stay stable), but several simpler kinds of molecules may work.

Well, that’s one hard part; another is how can a stable bag of chemicals form? (There have been some exciting recent discoveries which may help answer at least part of this question).

A different approach – than reproduction – to finding the key to how life got started involves asking how metabolism arose; how can a bag of chemicals take in ‘food’, process it (to supply energy to all the other chemical processes going on in the bag), and get rid of the waste?

The TalkOrigins website has a summary of abiogenesis, though it is now somewhat dated (much has happened in just the last three years)!

Abiogenesis in its strict sense (origin of life on Earth) is a bit off the track for Universe Today; however, conditions under which life might spontaneously arise, on other planets (etc) is not. Some Universe Today stories on this are Sub-surface Oceans In Comets Suggest Possible Origin of Life, Add Heat, Then Tectonics: Narrowing the Hunt for Life in Space, and Has Liquid Water Been Detected on Mars?