Where to Find Life? Not Europa

Now that we have found so many exoplanets, we might start to wonder whether they have life. It so happens I am going to give a presentation on this at a conference in about three weeks time, hence the temptation to focus attention on the topic. My argument is that whether a place could support life is irrelevant; the question is, could it get started? For the present, I am not considering panspermia, i.e. it came from somewhere else on the grounds that if it did, the necessities to reproduce still had to be present and if they were, life would probably evolve anyway. 

I consider the ability to reproduce to be critical because, from the chemistry point of view, it is the hardest to get right. One critical problem is reproduction itself is not enough; it is no use using all resources to make something that reproduces a brown sludge. It has to guess right, and the only way to do that is to make lots of guesses. The only way to do that is to tear to bits that which is a wrong guess and try again and re-use the bits. But then, when you get something useful that might eventually work, you have to keep the good bits. So reproduction and evolution have opposite requirements, but they have to go through the same entity. Reproduction requires the faithful transmission of information; evolution requires the information to change on transmission, but eventually not by much. Keep what is necessary, reject that which is bad. But how?

Information transfer requires a choice of entities to be attached to some polymer, and which can form specific links with either the same entity only (positive reproduction) or through a specific complementary entity (to make a negative copy). To be specific they have to have a strongly preferred attachment, but to separate them later, the attachment has to be able to be converted to near zero energy. This can be done with hydrogen bonds, because solvent water can make up the energy during separation. One hydrogen bond is insufficient; there are too many other things that could get in the road. Adenine forms two hydrogen bonds with uracil, guanine three with cytosine, and most importantly, guanine and uracil both have N-H bonds while adenine and cytosine have none; the wrong pairing either leads to a steric clash that pushes them apart or ends up with only one hydrogen bond that is not strong enough. Accordingly we have the condition for reliable information transfer. Further good news is these bases form themselves from ammonium cyanide, urea and cyanoacetylene, all of which are expected on an earth-like planet from my concept of planetary formation.

The next problem is to form two polymer strands that can separate in water. First, to link them something must have two links. For evolution to work, these have to be strong, but breakable under the right conditions. To separate, they need to have a solubilizing agent, which means an ionic bond. In turn, this means three functional valence electrons. Phosphate alone can do this. The next task is to link the phosphate to the bases that carries the information code. That something must also determine a fixed shape for the strands, and for this nature chose ribose. If we link adenine, ribose and phosphate at the 5 position of ribose we get adenosine monophosphate (AMP); if we do he same for uracil we get uridine monophosphate (UMP). If we put dilute solutions of AMP and UMP into vesicles (made by a long chain hydrocarbon-based surfactant) and let them lie on a flat rock in the sun and splash them from time to time with water, we end with what is effectively random “RNA” strands with over eighty units in a few hours. At this point, useful information is unlikely, but we are on the way.

Why ribose? Because the only laboratory synthesis of AMP from only the three constituents involves shining ultraviolet light on the mixture, and to me, this shows why ribose was chosen, even though ribose is one of the least likely sugars to be formed. As I see it, the reason is we have to form a phosphate ester specifically on the 5-hydroxyl. That means there has to be something unique about the 5-hydroxyl of ribose compared with all other sugar hydroxyl groups. To form such an ester, a hydroxyl has to hit the phosphate with an energy equivalent to the vibrations it would have at about 200 degrees C. Also, if any water is around at that temperature, it would immediately destroy the ester, so black smokers are out. The point about a furanose is it is a flexible molecule and when it receives energy (indirectly) from the UV light it will vibrate vigorously, and UV light has energy to spare for this task. Those vibrations will, from geometry, focus on the 5-hydroxyl. Ribose is the only sugar that has a reasonable amount of furanose; the rest are all in the rigid pyranose form. Now, an interesting point about ribose is that while it is usually only present in microscopic amounts in a non-specific sugar synthesis, it is much more common if the sugar synthesis occurs in the presence of soluble silica/silicic acid. That suggests life actually started at geothermal vents.

Now, back to evolution. RNA has a rather unique property amongst polymers in that the strands, when they get to a certain length and can be bent into a certain configuration and presumably held there with magnesium ions, they can catalyse the hydrolysis of other strands. It does that seemingly by first attacking the O2 of ribose, which breaks the polymer by hydrolysing the adjacent phosphate ester. The next interesting point is that if the RNA can form a double helix, the O2 is more protected. DNA is, of course, much better protected because it has no O2. So the RNA can build itself, and it can reorganise itself.

If the above is correct, then it places strong restrictions on where life can form. There will be no life in under-ice oceans on Europa (if they exist) for several reasons. First, Europa seemingly has no (or extremely small amounts of) nitrogen or carbon. In the very thin atmosphere of Europa (lower pressures than most vacuum pumps can get on Earth) the major gas is the hydroxyl radical, which is made by sunlight acting on ice. It is extremely reactive, which is why there is not much of it. There is 100,000 times less sodium it the atmosphere. Nitrogen was undetected. The next reason is the formation of the nucleic acid appears to require sunlight, and the ice will stop that. The next reason is that there is no geothermal activity that will make the surfactants, and no agitation to convert them to the vesicles needed to contain the condensation products, the ice effectively preventing that. There is no sign of hydrocarbon residues on the surface. Next, phosphates are essentially insoluble in water and would sink to the bottom of an ocean. (The phosphate for life in oceans on Earth tends to come from water washed down from erosion.) Finally, there is no obvious way to make ribose if there is no silicic acid to orient the formation of the sugar.

All of which suggests that life essentially requires an earth-like planet. To get the silicic acid you need geothermal activity, and that may mean you need felsic continents. Can you get silica deposits from volcanism/geothermal activity when the land is solely basalt? I don’t know, but if you cannot, this proposed mechanism makes it somewhat unlikely there was ever life on Mars because there would be no way to form nucleic acids.

A Planet Destroyer

Probably everyone now knows that there are planets around other stars, and planet formation may very well be normal around developing stars. This, at least, takes such alien planets out of science fiction and into reality. In the standard theory of planetary formation, the assumption is that dust from the accretion disk somehow turns into planetesimals, which are objects of about asteroid size and then mutual gravity brings these together to form planets. A small industry has sprung up in the scientific community to do computerised simulations of this sort of thing, with the output of a very large number of scientific papers, which results in a number of grants to keep the industry going, lots of conferences to attend, and a strong “academic reputation”. The mere fact that nobody knows how to get to their initial position appears to be irrelevant and this is one of the things I believe is wrong with modern science. Because those who award prizes, grants, promotions, etc have no idea whether the work is right or wrong, they look for productivity. Lots of garbage usually easily defeats something novel that the establishment does not easily understand, or is prepared to give the time to try.

Initially, these simulations predicted solar systems similar to ours in that there were planets in circular orbits around their stars, although most simulations actually showed a different number of planets, usually more in the rocky planet zone. The outer zone has been strangely ignored, in part because simulations indicate that because of the greater separation of planetesimals, everything is extremely slow. The Grand Tack simulations indicate that planets cannot form further than about 10 A.U. from the star. That is actually demonstrably wrong, because giants larger than Jupiter and very much further out are observed. What some simulations have argued for is that there is planetary formation activity limited to around the ice point, where the disk was cold enough for water to form ice, and this led to Jupiter and Saturn. The idea behind the NICE model, or Grand Tack model (which is very close to being the same thing) is that Uranus and Neptune formed in this zone and moved out by throwing planetesimals inwards through gravity. However, all the models ended up with planets being in near circular motion around the star because whatever happened was more or less happening equally at all angles to some fixed background. The gas was spiralling into the star so there were models where the planets moved slightly inwards, and sometimes outwards, but with one exception there was never a directional preference. That one exception was when a star came by too close – a rather uncommon occurrence. 

Then, we started to see exoplanets, and there were three immediate problems. The first was the presence of “star-burners”; planets incredibly close to their star; so close they could not have formed there. Further, many of them were giants, and bigger than Jupiter. Models soon came out to accommodate this through density waves in the gas. On a personal level, I always found these difficult to swallow because the very earliest such models calculated the effects as minor and there were two such waves that tended to cancel out each other’s effects. That calculation was made to show why Jupiter did not move, which, for me, raises the problem, if it did not, why did others?

The next major problem was that giants started to appear in the middle of where you might expect the rocky planets to be. The obvious answer to that was, they moved in and stopped, but that begs the question, why did they stop? If we go back to the Grand Tack model, Jupiter was argued to migrate in towards Mars, and while doing so, throw a whole lot of planetesimals out, then Saturn did much the same, then for some reason Saturn turned around and began throwing planetesimals inwards, which Jupiter continued the act and moved out. One answer to our question might be that Jupiter ran out of planetesimals to throw out and stopped, although it is hard to see why. The reason Saturn began throwing planetesimals in was that Uranus and Neptune started life just beyond Saturn and moved out to where they are now by throwing planetesimals in, which fed Saturn’s and Jupiter’s outwards movement. Note that this does depend on a particular starting point, and it is not clear to me  that since planetesimals are supposed to collide and form planets, if there was an equivalent to the masses of Jupiter and Saturn, why did they not form a planet?

The final major problem was that we discovered that the great bulk of exoplanets, apart from those very close to the star, had quite significant elliptical orbits. If you draw a line through the major axis, on one side of the star the planet moves faster and closer to it than the other side. There is a directional preference. How did that come about? The answer appears to be simple. The circular orbit arises from a large number of small interactions that have no particular directional preference. Thus the planet might form from collecting a huge number of planetesimals, or a large amount of gas, and these occur more or less continuously as the planet orbits the star. The elliptical orbit occurs if there is on very big impact or interaction. What is believed to happen is when planets grow, if they get big enough their gravity alters their orbits and if they come quite close to another planet, they exchange energy and one goes outwards, usually leaving the system altogether, and the other moves towards the star, or even into the star. If it comes close enough to the star, the star’s tidal forces circularise the orbit and the planet remains close to the star, and if it is moving prograde, like our moon the tidal forces will push the planet out. Equally, if the orbit is highly elliptical, the planet might “flip”, and become circularised with a retrograde orbit. If so, eventually it is doomed because the tidal forces cause it to fall into the star.

All of which may seem somewhat speculative, but the more interesting point is we have now found evidence this happens, namely evidence that the star M67 Y2235 has ingested a “superearth”. The technique goes by the name “differential stellar spectroscopy”, and what happens is that provided you can realistically estimate what the composition should be, which can be done with reasonable confidence if stars have been formed in a cluster and can reasonably be assigned as having started from the same gas. M67 is a cluster with over 1200 known members and it is close enough that reasonable details can be obtained. Further, the stars have a metallicity (the amount of heavy elements) similar to the sun. A careful study has shown that when the stars are separated into subgroups, they all behave according to expectations, except for Y2235, which has far too high a metallicity. This enhancement corresponds to an amount of rocky planet 5.2 times the mass of the earth in the outer convective envelope. If a star swallows a planet, the impact will usually be tangential because the ingestion is a consequence of an elliptical orbit decaying through tidal interactions with the star such that the planet grazes the external region of the star a few times before its orbital energy is reduced enough for ingestion. If so, the planet should dissolve in the stellar medium and increase the metallicity of the outer envelope of the star. So, to the extent that these observations are correctly interpreted, we have the evidence that stars do ingest planets, at least sometimes.

For those who wish to go deeper, being biased I recommend my ebook “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis.” Besides showing what I think happened, it analyses over 600 scientific papers, most of which are about different aspects.

Where are the Planets that Might Host Life?

In the previous posts I showed why RNA was necessary for primitive life to reproduce, but the question then is, what sort of planets will have the necessary materials? For the rocky planets, once they reached a certain size they would attract gas gravitationally, but this would be lost after the accretion disk was removed by the extreme UV put out by the new star. Therefore all atmosphere and surface water would be emitted volcanically. (Again, for the purposes of discussion, volcanic emission includes all geothermal emissions, e.g. from fumaroles.) Gas could be adsorbed on dust as it was accreted, but if it were, because heats of adsorption of the gases other than water are very similar, the amount of nitrogen would roughly equal the amount of neon. It doesn’t. (Neon is approximately at the same level as nitrogen in interstellar gas.)

The standard explanation is that since the volatiles could not have been accreted, they were delivered by something else. The candidates: comets and carbonaceous asteroids. Comets are eliminated because their water contains more deuterium than Earth’s water, and if they were the source, there would be twenty thousand times more argon. Oops. Asteroids can also be eliminated. At the beginning of this century it was shown that various isotope ratios of these bodies meant they could not be a significant source. In desperation, it was argued they could, just, if they got subducted through plate tectonics and hence were mixed in the interior. The problem here is that neither the Moon nor Mars have subduction, and there is no sign of these objects there. Also, we find that the planets have different atmospheres. Thus compared to Earth, Venus has 50% more carbon dioxide (if you count what is buried as limestone on Earth), four times more nitrogen, and essentially no water, while Mars has far less volatiles, possibly the same ratio of carbon dioxide and water but it has far too little nitrogen. How do you get the different ratios if they all came from the same source? It is reasonably obvious that no single agent can deliver such a mix, but since it is not obvious what else could have led to this result, people stick with asteroids.

There is a reasonably obvious alternative, and I have discussed the giants, and why there can be no life under-ice on Europa https://wordpress.com/post/ianmillerblog.wordpress.com/855) and reinforced by requirement to join ribose to phosphate. The only mechanism produced so far involves the purine absorbing a photon, and the ribose transmitting the effect. Only furanose sugars work, and ribose is the only sugar with significant furanose form in aqueous solution. There is not sufficient light under the ice. There are other problems for Europa. Ribose is a rather difficult sugar to make, and the only mechanism that could reasonably occur naturally is in the presence of soluble silicic acid. This requires high-temperature water, and really only occurs around fumaroles or other geothermal sites. (The terrace formations are the silica once it comes out of solution on cooling.)

So, where will we find suitable planets? Assuming the model is correct, we definitely need the dust in the accretion disk to get hot enough to form carbides, nitrides, and silicates capable of binding water. Each of those form at about 1500 degrees C, and iron melts at a bit over this temperature, but it can be lower with impurities, thus grey cast is listed as possible at 1127 degrees C. More interesting, and more complicated, are the silicates. The calcium aluminosilicates have a variety of phases that should separate from other silicate phases. They are brittle and can be easily converted to dust in collisions, but their main feature is they absorb water from the gas stream and form cements. If aggregation starts with a rich calcium aluminosilicate and there is plenty of it, it will phase separate out and by cementing other rocks and thus form a planet with plenty of water and granitic material that floats to the surface. Under this scene, Earth is optimal. The problem then is to get this system in the habitable zone, and unfortunately, while both the temperatures of the accretion disk and the habitable zone depend on the mass of the star, they appear to depend on different functions. The net result is the more common red dwarfs have their initial high-temperature zone too close to the star, and the most likely place to look for life are the G- and heavy K-type stars. The function for the accretion disk temperature depends on the rate of stellar accretion, which is unknown for mature stars but is known to vary significantly for stars of the same mass, thus LkCa 15b is three times further away than Jupiter from an equivalent mass star. Further, the star must get rid of its accretion disk very early or the planets get too big. So while the type of star can be identified, the probability of life is still low.

How about Mars? Mars would have been marginal. The current supply of nitrogen, including what would be lost to space, is so low life could not emerge, but equally there may be a lot of nitrogen in the solid state buried under the surface. We do not know if we can make silicic acid from basalt under geochemical conditions and while there are no granitic/felsic continents there, there are extrusions of plagioclase, which might do. My guess is the intermittent periods of fluid flow would have been too short anyway, but it is possible there are chemical fossils there of what the path towards life actually looked like. For me, they would be of more interest than life itself.

To summarise what I have proposed:

  • Planets have compositions dependent on where they form
  • In turn, this depends on the temperatures reached in the accretion disk
  • Chemicals required for reproduction formed at greater than 1200 degrees C in the accretion disk, and possibly greater than 1400 degrees C
  • Nucleic acids can only form, as far as we know, through light
  • Accordingly, we need planets with reduced nitrogen, geothermal processing, and probably felsic/granitic continents that end in the habitable zone.
  • The most probable place is around near-earth-sized planets around a G or heavy K type star
  • Of those stars, only a modest proportion will have planets small enough

Thus life-bearing planets around single stars are likely to be well-separated. Double stars remain unknown quantities regarding planets. This series has given only a very slight look at the issues. For more details, my ebook Planetary Formation and Biogenesis(http://www.amazon.com/dp/B007T0QE6I) has far more details.

What do we need for life?

One question that intrigues man people is, is there life in the Universe besides what we see? Logic would say, almost certainly yes. The reason is we know there is a non-zero probability that it can form elswhere because it did here. That probability may be small but there is an enormous number of stars in the Universe (something in excess of 10^22 that we can see) that the conditions that led to life here must be reproduced a very large number of times. Of course, while there are such a large number of stars, by far the most are at such an extraordinarily large distance from us that they are essentially irrelevant. For the bulk of them, it took the light more than ten billion years to get here. But if we were to look for life nearby, where would we look? To answer that, we need to ask ourselves, what conditions are needed to get life started? The issue is NOT where can life exist, but rather where can it form. We know life can be found now on Earth in a wide range of environments, but that does not mean it can form there. It can migrate from somewhere else, gradually evolving systems needed to stabilize it to the new environment. The most obvious example is life emerging from the water to live on land. Nobody suggests life did not start in water because you need a solution to move nutrients around.

The first question to ask is, what are the most difficult things to achieve for life to get started? I think the four hardest things to get started are reproduction, energy transport, solubilization, and catalysis. Catalysis is required to make the chemical reactions that are desirable to go faster, and thus get more of the available resources going in the desired direction. (In this, when I use the word “desired” I mean to get on a right track to where life can get going and then support that choice during subsequent evolution. I do not mean to imply some sort of planning or directing.) Solubilization is required because many of the chemicals with functions that will be needed are not soluble in water, and hence they would simply settle out as a layer of brown gunk, which, as an aside, is what happens in many experiments designed to simulate the origin of life. What needs to happen is that something joins on at a place that does not spoil the function and then conveys solubility. Energy transport is a critical problem: if you do not have something that stores energy, functionality is restricted to microdistances from energy inputs.

Each of these critical functions, as well as reproduction, as I shall show below, depend on forming phosphate esters. Thus energy transport is mediated by adenosine tripolyphosphate (ATP), solubilisation of many of the most primitive cofactors that do not contain a lot of nitrogen or hydroxyl groups is aided by an attached adenosine monophosphate (AMP), initial catalysts came from ribozymes, RNA would be the initial source of reproduction, and both ribozymes and RNA (the latter is effectively just far longer strands of the former) are both constructed of AMP or the equivalent with different nucleobases. The commonality is the ribose and phosphate ester.

Catalysis is an interesting problem. Currently, enzymes are used, but life could not have started that way. The reason lies in the complexity of enzymes. The enzyme that will digest other protein, and hence make chemicals available from failed attempts at guessing the structure of a useful enzyme, has a precise sequence of three hundred and fifteen amino acids. There are twenty different common amino acids used (and in abiogenic situations, a lot more available) and these occur in D- and L- configurations, except for glycine, which means the probability of getting this enzyme is two in 39^315. That number is incredibly improbable. It makes selecting a specific proton in the entire Universe trivial in comparison. Worse, that catalyses ONE reaction only. That is not how initial catalysis happened.

Now, look at the problem of reproduction. Once a polymer is formed that can generate some of whatever requirements life needs, if it cannot copy itself, then it is a one-off wonder, and eventually it will degrade and be lost without a trace. Reproduction involves the need to transfer information, which in this case is some sort of a pattern. The problem here is the transfer must be accurate, but not too accurate initially, and we need different entities. By that I mean, if you just reproduced the same entity, such as in polyethene, you have two units of information: what it is and how long it is, but that second one is rather useless because life has no way of measuring the length without having a very large set of reference molecules. What life here chose appears to have been RNA, at least to start with. RNA has two purines and two pyrimidines, and it pairs them in a double helix. When reproduction occurs, one strand is the negative of the other, but if the negative pairs, we now have two strands that are equivalent to each original strand. (you retain the original.) There are four variations possible from the canonical units at any given position, and once you have many millions of units, a lot of information can be coded.

Why ribonucleic acid? The requirement is to be able to transfer information reliably, but not too accurately (I shall explain why not in a later post.) To do that, the polymer strands have to bind, and this occurs through what we call hydrogen bonds, which each give a binding energy of about 13 kJ/mol. These are chosen because they are weak enough to be ruptured, but strong enough you can get preferences. Thus adenine binds with uracil through two hydrogen bonds, which generates a little over 26 kJ/mol. (For comparison, a carbon-carbon bond is about 360 kJ/mol.) To get the 26 kJ/mol. the two hydrogen bonds have to be formed, and that can only happen of the entities have the right groups in the correct rigid configuration. When guanine bonds with cytosine, three such hydrogen bonds are formed, and the attraction is just under 40 kJ/mol. Guanine can also bind with uracil generating 26 kJ/mol., so information transfer is not necessarily totally accurate.

This binding through hydrogen bonds is critical. The bonding is strong enough to give a significant preference for each mer, but once the polymer gets long enough, the total energy (the sum of the energy of the individual pairs) holding the strands together gets to be those energies above multiplied by the number of pairs. If you have a million pairs, the strength of diamond becomes trivial, yet to reproduce, the strands must be separated. Hydrogen bonds can be separated because as the strands start to separate, water also hydrogen bonds and thus makes up for the linking energy. However, that alone is insufficient because the strand itself would be insoluble in water, and if so, the two strands linked together would remain insoluble (for those who know what this means, entropy strongly favours keeping the strands together). To achieve this, we need something that joins the mers into a chain, adds solubility, forms stable chemical bonds in general but is equally capable of being broken so that if the information creates something that is useless, we can recycle the chemicals. Only phosphate fills these requirements, but phosphate does not bind nucleobases together. Something intermediate is required, and that something is ribose.

In the next posts on this topic, I shall show you where this leads in seeing where life might be.

How do Rocky Planets Form?

A question in my last post raised the question of how do rocky planets form, and why is Venus so different from Earth? This will take two posts; the first covers how the planets form and why, and the second how they evolve immediately after formation and get their atmospheres.

First, a quick picture of accretion. At first, the gas cloud collapses and falls into the star, and in this stage the star the size of the sun accretes something like 2.5 x 10^20 kg per second. Call that stage 1. When the star has gobbled up most of the material, such accretion slows down, and in what I shall call stage 2 it accretes gas at least four orders of magnitude slower. The gas heats due to loss of potential energy as it falls into the star, although it also radiates heat from the dust that gets hot. (Hydrogen and helium do not radiate in the infrared easily.) In stage 1, the gas reached something like 1600 degrees C at 1 A.U. (the distance from Earth to the sun). In stage 2, because far less gas was falling in, the disk had temperatures roughly what bodies have now. Even in stage 2, standard theory has it that boulder-sized objects will fall into the star within about a hundred years due to friction with the gas.

So how did planets form? The standard explanation is that after the star had finished accreting, the dust very rapidly accreted to planetesimals (bodies about 500 km across) and these collided to form oligarchs, and in turn these collided to form planets. I have many objections to this. The reasons include the fact there is no mechanism to form the planetesimals that we assume to begin with. The calculations originally required one hundred million years (100 My) to form Earth, but we know that it had to be essentially formed well before that because the collision that formed the Moon occurred at about 50 My after formation started. Calculations solved the Moon-forming problem by saying it only took 30 My, but without clues why this time changed. Worse, there are reasons to believe Earth had to form within about 1 My of stage 2 because it has xenon and krypton that had to come from the accretion disk. Finally, in the asteroid belt there is evidence of some previous collisions between asteroids. What happens is they make families of much smaller objects. In short, the asteroids shatter into many pieces upon such collisions. There is no reason to believe that similar collisions much earlier would be any different.

The oldest objects in the solar system are either calcium aluminium inclusions or iron meteorites. Their ages can be determined by various isotope decays and both had to be formed in very hot regions. The CAIs are found in chondrites originating from the asteroid belt, but they needed much greater heat to form than was there in stage 2. Similarly, iron meteorites had to form at a temperature sufficient to melt iron. So, how did they get that hot and not fall into the sun? The only time the accretion disk got sufficiently hot at a reasonable distance from the sun was when the star was accreting in stage 1. In my opinion, this shows the calculations were wrong, presumably because they missed something. Worse, to have enough material to make the giants, about a third of the stellar mass has to be in the disk, but observation of other disks in stage 2 shows there is simply not enough mass to make the giants.

The basic argument I make is that whatever was formed in the late stages of stellar accretion stayed more or less where it was. One of the puzzles of the solar system is that most of the mass is in the star, but most of the angular momentum resides in the planets, and since angular momentum has to be conserved and since most of that was with the gas initially, my argument is any growing solids took angular momentum from the gas, which sends then mass further from the star, and it had to be taken before the star stopped accreting. (I suggest a mechanism in my ebook.)

Now to how the rocky planets formed. During primary stellar accretion, temperatures reached about 1300 degrees C where Mars would form and 1550 degrees C a little beyond where Earth would grow. This gives a possible mechanism for accretion of dust. At about 800 degrees C silicates start to get sticky, so dust can accrete into small stones there, and larger ones closer to the star. There are a number of different silicates, all of which have long polymers, but some, especially aluminosilicates are a little more mobile than others. At about 1300 degrees C, calcium silicate starts to phase separate out, and about 1500 degrees C various aluminosilicates phase separate. This happens because the longer the polymer, the more immiscible it is in another polymer melt (a consequence of the first two laws of thermodynamics, and which makes plastics recycling so difficult.) If this were the only mechanism for forming rocky planets, the size of the finished planet would diminish significantly with distance from the star. Earth, Venus and Mercury are in the wrong order. Mercury may have accreted this way, but further out, stones or boulders would be the biggest objects.

Once primary stellar accretion ends, temperatures were similar to what they are now. Stones collide, but with temperatures like now, they initially only make dust. There is no means of binding silicates through heat. However, if stones can come together, dust can fill the spaces. The key to rocky planet formation is that calcium silicate and calcium aluminosilicates could absorb water vapour from the disk gases, and when they do that, they act as cements that bind the stones together to form a concrete. The zone where the aluminosilicates start to get formed is particularly promising for absorbing water and setting cement, and because iron starts to form bodies here, lumps of iron are also accreted. This is why Earth has an iron core and plenty of water. Mars has less water because calcium silicate absorbs much less water, and its iron is mainly accreted as fine dust.

Finally, Mars is smaller because the solids density is less, and the disk is cleared before it has time to fully grow. The evidence for the short-lived disk is from the relatively small size of Jupiter compared with corresponding planets around similar sized stars that our sun cleared out the accretion disk sooner than most. This is why we have rocky planets, and not planets like the Neptune-sized planets in the so-called habitable zone around a number of stars. Venus is smaller than Earth because it was harder to get going, through the difficulty of water setting the cement, which is partly why it has very little water on its surface. However, once started it grows faster since the density of basaltic rocks is greater. Mercury is probably smaller still because it formed a slightly different way, through excessively mobile silicates in the first stage of the accretion disk, and by later being bombed by very large rocky bodies that were more likely to erode it. That is somewhat similar to the standard explanation of why Mercury is small but has a large iron core. The planets grow very quickly, and soon gravity binds all dust and small stones, then as it grows, gravity attracts objects that have grown further away, which perforce are large, but still significantly smaller than the main body in the zone.

Next post: how these rocky planets started to evolve to where they are now.

Science that does not make sense

Occasionally in science we see reports that do not make sense. The first to be mentioned here relates to Oumuamua, the “interstellar asteroid” mentioned in my previous post. In a paper (arXiv:1901.08704v3 [astro-ph.EP] 30 Jan 2019) Sekanina suggests the object was the debris of a dwarf interstellar comet that disintegrated before perihelion. One fact that Sekanina thought to be important was that no intrinsically faint long-period comet with a perihelion distance less than about 0.25 AU, which means it comes as close or closer than about two-thirds the distance from the sun as Mercury, have ever been observed after perihelion. The reason is that if the comet gets that close to the star, the heat just disintegrates it. Sekanina proposed that such an interstellar comet entered our system and disintegrated, leaving “a monstrous fluffy dust aggregate released in the recent explosive event, ‘Oumuamua should be of strongly irregular shape, tumbling, not outgassing, and subjected to effects of solar radiation pressure, consistent with observation.” Convinced? My problem: just because comets cannot survive close encounters with the sun does not mean a rock emerging from near the sun started as a comet. This is an unfortunately common logic problem. A statement of the form “if A, then B” simply means what it says. It does NOT mean, there is B therefor there must have been A.

At this point it is of interest to consider what comets are comprised of. The usual explanation is they are formed by ices and dust accreting. The comets are formed in the very outer solar system (e.g.the Oort cloud) by the ices sticking together. The ices include gases such as nitrogen and carbon monoxide, which are easily lost once they get hot. Here, “hot” is still very cold. When the gases volatalise, they tend to blow off a lot of dust, and that dust is what we see as the tail, which is directed away from the star due to radiation pressure and solar wind. The problem with Sekanina’s interpretation is, the ice holds everything together. The paper conceded this when it said it was a monstrous fluffy aggregate, but for me as the ice vaporizes, it will push the dust apart. Further, even going around a star, it will still happen progressively. The dust should spread out, as a comet tail. It did not for Oumuamua.

The second report was from Bonomo, in Nature Astronomy(doi.org/10.1038/s41550-018-0648-9). They claimed the Kepler 107 system provided evidence of giant collisions, as described in my previous post, and the sort of thing that might make an Oumuamua. What the paper claims is there are two planets with radii about fifty per cent bigger than Earth, and the outer planet is twice as dense (relative density ~ 12.6 g/cm^3) than the inner one (relative density ~ 5.3 g/cm^3). The authors argue that this provides evidence for a giant collision that would have stripped off much of the silicates from the outer planet, thus leaving more of an iron core. In this context, that is what some people think is the reason for Mercury having a density almost approaching that of Earth so the authors are simply tagging on to a common theme.

So why do I think this does not make sense? Basically because the relative density of iron is 7.87 g/cm^3. Even if this planet is pure iron, it could not have a density significantly greater than 7.8. (There is an increase in density due to compressibility under gravity, but iron is not particularly compressible so any gain will be small.) Even solid lead would not do. Silicates and gold would be OK, so maybe we should start a rumour? Raise money for an interstellar expedition to get rich quick (at least from the raised money!) However, from the point of view of the composition of dust that forms planets, that is impossible so maybe investors will see through this scam. Maybe.

So what do I think has happened? In two words, experimental error. The mass has to be determined by the orbital interactions with something else. What the Kepler mehod does is determine the orbital characteristics by measuring the periodic times, i.e.the times between various occultations. The size is measured from the width of the occultation signal and the slope of the signal at the beginning and the end. All of these have possible errors, and they include the size of the star and the assumed position re the equator of the star, so the question now is, how big are these errors? I am starting to suspect, very big.

This is of interest to me since I wrote an ebook, “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis”. In this, I surveyed all the knowedge I could find up to the time of writing, and argued the standard theory was wrong. Why? It took several chapters to nail this, but the essence is that standard theory starts with a distribution of planetesimals and lets gravitational interactions lead to their joining up into planets. The basic problems I see with this are that collisions will lead to fragmentation, and the throwing into deep space, or the star, bits of planet. The second problem is nobody has any idea how such planetesimals form. I start by considering chemical interactions, and when I do that, after noting that what happens will depend on the temperatures around where it happens (what happens in chemistry is often highly temperature dependent) you get very selective zoes that differ from each other quite significantly. Our planets are in such zones (if you assume Jupiter formed at the “snow zone”) and have the required properties. Since I wrote that, I have been following the papers on the topic and nothing has been found that contradicts it, except, arguably things like the Kepler 107 “extremely dense planet”. I argue it is impossible, and therefore the results are in error.

Should anyone be interested in this ebook, see http://www.amazon.com/dp/B007T0QE6I

Oumuamua (1I) and Vega

Oumuamua is a small asteroidal object somewhere between 100 – 1000 meters long and is considerably longer than it is broad. Basically, it looks like a slab of rock, and is currently passing through the solar system on its way to wherever. It is our first observation of an interstellar object hence the bracketed formal name: 1 for first, I for interstellar. How do we know it came from interstellar space? Its orbit has been mapped, and its eccentricity determined. The eccentricity of a circular orbit is zero; an eccentricity greater than zero but less than one means the object is in an elliptical orbit, and the larger the eccentricity, the bigger the difference between closest and furthest approach to the sun. Oumuamua was found to have an eccentricity of 1.1995, which means, being greater than 1, it is on a hyperbolic orbit. It started somewhere where the sun’s gravity is irrelevant, and it will continue on and permanently leave the sun’s gravitational field. We shall never see it again, so the observation of it could qualify it for entry in “The Journal of Irreproducible Results”.

Its velocity in interstellar space (i.e.without the sun’s gravitational effects) was 26.3 km/s. We have no means of knowing where it came from, although if is trajectory is extrapolated backwards, it came from the direction of Vega. Of course it did not come from Vega, because when it passed through the space that Vega now occupies, Vega was somewhere else. Given there is no sign of ice on Oumuamua, which would form something like a cometary tail, it presumably came from the rocky zone closer to its system’s star, and this presumably has given rise to the web speculation that Oumuamua was some sort of alien space ship. Sorry, but no, it is not, and it does not need motors to enter interstellar space.

The way a body like Oumuamua could be thrown into interstellar space goes like this. There has to be a collision between two rocky bodies that are big enough to form fragments of the required size and the collision has to be violent enough to give the fragment a good velocity. That will also make a lot of dust. The fragments would be assumed to then go into elliptical orbits, but if there are both rocky planets and giants, the body could be ejected in the same way the Voyager space craft have left our solar system, namely through gravity assists. If the object is on the right trajectory it could get a gravity assist from an earth-like rocky planet, then another one from a giant that could give it enough impetus to leave the system. This presumably happened a long time ago, so we have no idea where the object came from.

Notwithstanding that, Oumuamua brought Vega to my attention, and it is, at least for me, an interesting star. That, of course, is because I have published a theory of planetary formation that is at odds with the generally accepted one. Vega has about twice the mass of the sun, and because it is bigger, it burns faster, and will have a life of about a billion years. It is roughly half-way through that, so it won’t have had time for planets to evolve intelligent life. The concentration of elements heavier than helium in Vega is about a third that of the sun. Vega also has an abnormally fast rate of rotation, so much so that it is about 88% of what would be required to start the star breaking up. This is significant because one of the oddities of our solar system is that the bulk of the angular momentum resides in the planets, while by far the bulk of the mass lies in the star. The implication might be that the lower level of heavier elements meant that Vega did not form cores fast enough and hence it does not have the giant planets of sufficient size to have taken up sufficient angular momentum. The situation could be like an ice skater who spins very fast, but slows the rotation by extending her arms. If the arms are very short, the spin cannot be slowed as much.

The infra-red emissions from Vega are consistent with a dust disk from about 70 – 100 A.U. out to 330 A.U. from the star (an A.U. is the distance from the sun to the Earth). This is assumed to have arisen from recent collisions of objects comparable to those in the Kuiper Belt here. There is apparently another dusty zone at 8 A.U., which would have to have originated from collisions between rocky objects. So far there is no evidence of planets around Vega, but equally there is no evidence there are none. We view Vega almost aligned with its axis of rotation, so most of the usual techniques for finding planets will not work. The transiting technique of the Kepler program requires us to be aligned with the ecliptic (which should be aligned with the equator) and the Doppler technique has similar limitations, although it has more tolerance for deviation. The Doppler technique detects the gravitational wobble of the star and if you could detect such a wobble directly, you could see it from along the polar axis. Unfortunately, we can’t, at least not yet, and worse, detecting such wobbles works best with very large planets around small stars. Here, if you follow my theory and accept the low metallicity, we expect small planets around a very large star. Direct observation has so far only worked for the first few million years of the star, where giant planets are radiating yellow to white light from their surface temperature that is so hot because of the gravitational accretion energy. These cool down reasonably quickly.

What grabbed my attention about Vega was the 8 A.U. dust zone. That can only be generated by a number of collisions because such dust zones have to be replenished. That is because solar radiation slows dust down, and it gradually falls into the star. So to have a good number of frequent collisions, you need a very large number of objects that could collide, which effectively requires a belt of boulders. So why have they not collided and formed a planet, when the standard theory of planetary formation says planets are formed by the collision of boulders to form planetesimals, and these collide to form embryos, which collide to form planets. In my ebook, “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis” I provide an answer, which is basically that to form rocky planets, the collisions have to happen in the accretion disk, and they happen very fast, and they happen because water vapour in the disk helps set cement. Once the accretion disk is removed, further accretion is impossible, other than from objects colliding with a big enough object for gravity to hold all the debris. Accordingly, collisions of boulder-sized objects or asteroids will make dust, and that would create a dust belt that would not last all that long. The equivalent of the Kuiper Belt around Vega appears to be between 3 – 6 times further out. In my theory, if the planet accreted in the same as the sun, it would be approximately 8 times further out. However, lower dust content may make it harder to radiate energy, hence accretion may be slower. If this second belt scales accordingly, it could correspond to our asteroid belt.  We know occasional collisions did occur in our asteroid belt because we see families of smaller fragments whose trajectories extrapolate back to a singe event. So maybe dust belts are tolerably common for short periods in the life of a star. It would not be a great coincidence we see one around Vega; there are a huge number of stars, we see a very large number of accretion disks, so dust belts should turn up sooner or later.

Finally, why does the star spin faster? Again, in my theory, the planets accrete from the solid and take their angular momentum, but then they also take angular momentum from the disk gas through a mechanism similar to the classical Magnus force. Vega has less dust to make planets, hence less angular momentum is taken that way, and because the planets should be smaller there is less gravity to take angular momentum from the gas, and more gas anyway. So the star retains a higher fraction of its angular momentum. All of this does not prove that my theory is right, but it is comforting that it at least has some sort of plausible support. If interested further, check out http://www.amazon.com/dp/B007T0QE6I.