Where to Look for Alien Life?

One intriguing question is what is the probability of life elsewhere in the Universe? In my ebook, “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis” I argue that if you need the sort of chemistry I outline to form the appropriate precursors, then to get the appropriate planet in the habitable zone your best bet is to have a G-type or heavy K-type star. Our sun is a G-type. While that eliminates most stars such as red dwarfs, there are still plenty of possible candidates and on that criterion alone the universe should be full of life, albeit possibly well spread out, and there may be other issues. Thus, of the close stars to Earth, Alpha Centauri has two of the right stars, but being a double star, we don’t know whether it might have spat out its planets when it was getting rid of giants, as the two stars come as close as Saturn is to our sun. Epsilon Eridani and Tau Ceti are K-type, but it is not known whether the first has rocky planets, and further it is only about 900 million years old so any life would be extremely primitive. Tau Ceti has claims to about 8 planets, but only four have been confirmed, and for two of these, one gets about 1.7 times Earth’s light (Venus get about 1.9 times as much) while the other gets about 29%. They are also “super Earths”. Interestingly, if you apply the relationship I had in my ebook, the planet that gets the most light, is the more likely to be similar geologically to Earth (apart from its size) and is far more likely than Venus to have accreted plenty of water, so just maybe it is possible.

So where do we look for suitable planets? Very specifically how probable are rocky planets? One approach to address this came from Nibauer et al. (Astrophysical Journal, 906: 116, 2021). What they did was to look at the element concentration of stars and picked on 5 elements for which he had data. He then focused on the so-called refractory elements, i.e., those that make rocks, and by means of statistics he separated the stars into two groups: the “regular” stars, which have the proportion of refractory elements expected from the nebular clouds, or a “depleted” category, where the concentrations are less than expected. Our sun is in the “depleted” category, and oddly enough, only between 10 – 30% are “regular”. The concept here is the stars are depleted because these elements have been taken away to make rocky planets. Of course, there may be questions about the actual analysis of the data and the model, but if the data holds up, this might be indicative that rocky planets can form, at least around single stars. 

One of the puzzles of planetary formation is exemplified by Tau Ceti. The planet is actually rather short of the heavy elements that make up planets, yet it has so many planets that are so much bigger than Earth. How can this be? My answer in my ebook is that there are three stages of the accretion disk: the first when the star is busily accreting and there are huge inflows of matter; the second a transition when supply of matter declines, and a third period when stellar accretion slows by about four orders of magnitude. At the end of this third period, the star creates huge solar winds that clear out the accretion disk of gas and dust. However, in this third stage, planets continue accreting. This third stage can last from less than 1 million years to up to maybe forty. So, planets starting the same way will end up in a variety of sizes depending on how long the star takes to remove accretable material. The evidence is that our sun spat out its accretion disk very early, so we have smaller than average planets.

So, would the regular stars not have planets? No. If they formed giants, there would be no real selective depletion of specific elements, and a general depletion would register as the star not having as many in the first place. The amount of elements heavier than helium is called metallicity by astronomers, and this can vary by a factor of at least 40, and probably more. There may even be some first-generation stars out there with no heavy elements. It would be possible for a star to have giant planets but show no significant depletion of refractory elements. So while Nibauer’s analysis is interesting, and even encouraging, it does not really eliminate more than a minority of the stars. If you are on a voyage of discovery, it remains something of a guess which stars are of particular interest.

Venus with a Watery Past?

In a recent edition of Science magazine (372, p1136-7) there is an outline of two NASA probes to determine whether Venus had water. One argument is that Venus and Earth formed from the same material, so they should have started off very much the same, in which case Venus should have had about the same amount of water as Earth. That logic is false because it omits the issue of how planets get water. However, it argued that Venus would have had a serious climatic difference. A computer model showed that when planets rotate very slowly the near absence of a Coriolis force would mean that winds would flow uniformly from equator to pole. On Earth, the Coriolis effect leads to the lower atmosphere air splitting into three  cells on each side of the equator: tropical, subtropical and polar circulations. Venus would have had a more uniform wind pattern.

A further model then argued that massive water clouds would form, blocking half the sunlight, then “in the perpetual twilight, liquid water could have survived for billions of years.”  Since Venus gets about twice the light intensity as Earth does, Venusian “perpetual twilight” would be a good sunny day here. The next part of the argument was that since water is considered to lubricate plates, the then Venus could have had plate tectonics. Thus NASA has a mission to map the surface in much greater detail. That, of course, is a legitimate mission irrespective of the issue of water.

A second aim of these missions is to search for reflectance spectra consistent with granite. Granite is thought to be accompanied by water, although that correlation could be suspect because it is based on Earth, the only planet where granite is known.

So what happened to the “vast oceans”? Their argument is that massive volcanism liberate huge amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere “causing a runaway greenhouse effect that boiled the planet dry.” Ultraviolet light now broke down the water, which would lead to the production of hydrogen, which gets lost to space. This is the conventional explanation for the very high ratio of deuterium to hydrogen in the atmosphere. The concept is the water with deuterium is heavier, and has a slightly higher boiling point, so it would be the least “boiled off”. The effect is real but it is a very small one, which is why a lot of water has to be postulated. The problem with this explanation is that while hydrogen easily gets lost to space there should be massive amounts of oxygen retained. Where is it? Their answer: the oxygen would be “purged” by more ash. No mention of how.

In my ebook “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis” I proposed that Venus probably never had any liquid water on its surface. The rocky planets accreted their water by binding to silicates, and in doing so helped cement aggregate together and get the planet growing. Earth accreted at a place that was hot enough during stellar accretion to form calcium aluminosilicates that make very good cements and would have absorbed their water from the gas disk. Mars got less water because the material that formed Mars had been too cool to separate out aluminosilicates so it had to settle for simple calcium silicate, which does not bind anywhere near as much water. Venus probably had the same aluminosilicates as Earth, but being closer to the star meant it was hotter and less water bonded, and consequently less aluminosilicates.

What about the deuterium enhancement? Surely that is evidence of a lot of water? Not necessarily. How did the gases accrete? My argument is they would accrete as solids such as carbides, nitrides, etc. and the gases would be liberated by reaction with water. Thus on the road to making ammonia from a metal nitride

M – N  + H2O   →  M – OH  +  N-H  ; then  M(OH)2    →  MO + H2O and this is repeated until ammonia is made. An important point is one hydrogen atom is transferred from each molecule of water while one is retained by the oxygen attached to the metal. Now the bond between deuterium and oxygen is stronger than that from hydrogen, the reason being that the hydrogen atom, being lighter, has its bond vibrate more strongly. Therefore the deuterium is more likely to remain on the oxygen atom and end up in further water. This is known as the chemical isotope effect, and it is much more effective at concentrating deuterium. Thus as I see it, too much of the water was used up making gas, and eventually also making carbon dioxide. Venus may never have had much surface water.

Is There a Planet 9?

Before I start, I should remind everyone of the solar system yardstick: the unit of measurement called the Astronomical Unit, or AU, which is the distance from Earth to the Sun. I am also going to define a mass unit, the emu, which is the mass of the Earth, or Earth mass unit.

As you know, there are eight planets, with the furthest out being Neptune, which is 30 AU from the Sun. Now the odd thing is, Neptune is a giant of 17 emu, Uranus is only about 14.5 emu, so there is more to Neptune than Uranus, even though it is about 12 AU further out. So, the obvious question is, why do the planets stop at Neptune, and that question can be coupled with, “Do they?” The first person to be convinced there had to be at least one more was Percival Lowell, he of Martian canal fame, and he built himself a telescope and searched but failed to find it. The justification was that Neptune’s orbit appeared to be perturbed by something. That was quite reasonable as Neptune had been found by perturbations in Uranus’ orbit that were explained by Neptune. So the search was on. Lowell calculated the approximate position of the ninth planet, and using Lowell’s telescope, Clyde Tombaugh discovered what he thought was planet 9.  Oddly, this was announced on the anniversary of Lowell’s birthday, Lowell now being dead. As it happened, this was an accidental coincidence. Pluto is far too small to affect Neptune, and it turns out Neptune’s orbit did not have the errors everyone thought it did – another mistake. Further, Neptune, as with the other planets has an almost circular obit but Pluto’s is highly elliptical, spending some time inside Neptune’s orbit and sometimes as far away as 49 AU from the Sun. Pluto is not the only modest object out there: besides a lot of smaller objects there is Quaoar (about half Pluto’s size) and Eris (about Pluto’s size). There is also Sedna, (about 40% Pluto’s size) that has an elliptical orbit that varies the distance to the sun from 76 AU to 900 AU.

This raises a number of questions. Why did planets stop at 30 AU here? Why is there no planet between Uranus and Neptune? We know HR 8977 has four giants like ours, and the Neptune equivalent is about 68 AU from the star, and that Neptune-equivalent is about 6 times the mass of Jupiter. The “Grand Tack” mechanism explains our system by arguing that cores can only grow by major bodies accreting what are called planetesimals, which are bodies about the size of asteroids, and cores cannot grow further out than Saturn. In this mechanism, Neptune and Uranus formed near Saturn and were thrown outwards and lifted by throwing a mass of planetesimals inwards, the “throwing”: being due to gravitational interactions. To do this there had to be a sufficient mass of planetesimals, which gets back to the question, why did they stop at 30 AU?

One of the advocates for Planet 9 argued that Planet 9, which was supposed to have a highly elliptical orbit itself, caused the elliptical orbits of Sedna and some other objects. However, this has also been argued to be due to an accidental selection of a small number of objects, and there are others that don’t fit. One possible cause of an elliptical orbit could be a close encounter with another star. This does happen. In 1.4 million years Gliese 710, which is about half the mass of the Sun, will be about 10,000 AU from the Sun, and being that close, it could well perturb orbits of bodies like Sedna.

Is there any reason to believe a planet 9 could be there? As it happens, the exoplanets encylopaedia lists several at distances greater that 100 AU, and in some case several thousand AU. That we see them is because they are much larger than Jupiter, and they have either been in a good configuration for gravitational lensing or they are very young. If they are very young, the release of gravitational energy raises them to temperatures where they emit yellow-white light. When they get older, they will fade away and if there were such a planet in our system, by now it would have to be seen by reflected light. Since objects at such great distances move relatively slowly they might be seen but not recognized as planets, and, of course, studies that are looking for something else usually encompass a wide sky, which is not suitable for planet searching.For me, there is another reason why there might be such a planet. In my ebook, “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis” I outline a mechanism by which the giants form, which is similar to that of forming a snowball: if you press ices/snow together and it is suitably close to its melting point, it melt-fuses, so I predict the cores will form from ices known to be in space: Jupiter – water; Saturn – methanol/ammonia/water; Uranus – methane/argon; Neptune – carbon monoxide/nitrogen. If you assume Jupiter formed at the water ice temperature, the other giants are in the correct place to within an AU or so. However, there is one further ice not mentioned: neon. If it accreted a core then it would be somewhere greater than 100 AU.  I cannot be specific because the melting point of neon is so low that a number of other minor and ignorable effects are now significant, and cannot be ignored. So I am hoping there is such a planet there.

Water on the Moon

The Moon is generally considered to be dry. There are two reasons for that. The first is the generally accepted model for the formation of our moon is that something about the size of Mars collided with Earth and sent a huge amount of silica vapours into space at temperatures of about 10,000 degrees Centigrade (which is about twice as hot as the average surface of the sun) and much of that (some say about half) condensed and accreted into the Moon. Because the material was so hot and in a vacuum, all water should have been in the gas phase, and very little would condense so the Moon should be anhydrous deep in the interior. The fact its volcanic emissions have been considered to be dry is taken to support that conclusion. And thus with circular logic, it supports the concept that Earth formed by objects as large as Mars colliding and forming the planet.

The second is the rocks brought back by Apollo were considered to be anhydrous. That was because the accepted paradigm for the Moon formation required it to be dry. The actual rocks, on heating to 700 degrees Centigrade, were found to have about 160 ppm of water. On the basis that the accepted paradigm required them to be anhydrous it was assumed the rocks were contaminated with water from Earth. The fact that the deuterium levels of the hydrogen atoms in this water corresponded to solar hydrogen and not Earth’s water was ignored. That could not be contamination. Did that cause us to revise the paradigm? Heavens no. Uncomfortable facts that falsify the accepted theory have to be buried and ignored.

Recently, two scientific papers have concluded that the surface of the Moon contains water. Yay! If we go there, there is water to drink. Well, maybe. First, let’s look at how we know. The support is from infrared spectra, where a signal corresponding to the O-H bond stretching mode is seen. It has been known for some time that such signals have been detected on the Moon, but this does not mean there is water, since it could also arise from entities with, say, a Si-O-H group. Accordingly, it could come from space weathered rock, and in this context, signal strength increases towards the evening, which would happen if the rocks reacted with solar wind. The heating of rocks with these groups would give off water, so the Moon might still be technically dry but capable of providing water. Further examination of apatites brought back from Apollo suggested the interior could have water up to about 400 ppm.

How could the interior be wetter? That depends on how it formed. In my ebook, “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis” I surveyed the possibilities, and I favour the proposal outlined by Belbruno, E., Gott, J.R. 2005. Astron. J. 129: 1724–1745. Quite simply, Theia, the body that collided with Earth, formed at one of the Lagrange points. I favour L4. Such a body there would accrete by the same mechanism as Earth, which explains why it has the same isotopes, and while its orbit there is stable while it is small, as soon as it becomes big it gets dislodged. It would still collide with Earth, it would still get hot but need not vaporize. Being smaller, the interior may trap its water. There is evidence from element abundance that anything that would remain solid on the surface at about 1100 degrees Centigrade was not depleted, which means that is roughly the maximum temperature reached, and that would not vaporize silicates.

In one of the new papers, the signals from the surface have included the H-O-H bending frequency, which means water. Since it has not evaporated off into space it is probably embedded in rocks and may have originated from meteorites that crashed into the Moon, where they melted on impact and embedded the water they brought. There is also ice in certain polar craters that never see the sunlight, and above latitude 80 degrees, there are a number of such small craters.So, what does this mean for settlement? If the concentration is 5 ppm, to get 5 kg of water you would have to process a thousand tonne of rock, which would involve heating it to about seven hundred degrees Centigrade, holding it there, and not letting any water escape. The polar craters have ice up to a few per cent, but that ice also contains ammonia, hydrogen sulphide, and some other nasties, and since the craters never see sunlight the outside temperature is approximately two hundred degrees Centigrade below zero. You will see proposals that future space ships will use hydrogen and oxygen made from lunar water. That would require several thousand tonne of water, which would involve processing a very large amount of rock. It will always be easier to get water from the Sahara desert than the lunar surface, but it is there and could help maintain a settlement with careful water management.

Support for a Predicted Mechanism!

What is the point of a scientific theory? The obvious one is that if you understand you can predict what will happen if you have reason to have that proposition present.  Unfortunately, you can lay down the principles and not make the specific prediction because you cannot foresee all the possible times it might be relevant. What sparked this thought is that about a decade ago I published an ebook called “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis”. The purpose of this was in part because the standard theory starts off by assuming that somehow things called planetesimals form. These were large asteroids, a few hundred km in size, and then these formed planets through their mutual gravity. However, nobody had any idea at all how these planetesimals formed; they were simply assumed as necessary on the assumption that gravity was the agent that formed the planets. On a personal level, I found this to be unsatisfactory.

I am restricting the following to what happens with icy bodies; the rocky ones are a completely different story. We start with highly dispersed dust because the heavy elements are formed in a supernova, in which these gases fly out at a very high speed. In one supernova, one hour after initiation, matter was flying out at 115,000 km/second, and it takes a long time to slow down. However, eventually it cools, gets embedded in a gas cloud and some chemical reactions take place. Most of the oxygen eventually reacts with something. All the more reactive elements like silicon or aluminium react, and the default for oxygen is to form water with hydrogen. The silicon, magnesium, calcium and aluminium oxides form solids, but they form one link at a time and cannot rearrange. This leaves a dispersion of particles that make smoke particles look large. If two such “particles” get close enough, because the chemical bonds are quite polar in these particular oxides, they attract each other and because they are reactive, they can join. This leads to a microscopic mass of tangled threads since each junction is formed on the exterior. So we end up with a very porous solid with numerous channels. These channels incorporate gases that are held to the channel surfaces. In the extreme cold of space, when these gases are brought close together on these surfaces they solidify to form ices. These solids filled with ices have been formed in the laboratory.

My concept of how icy bodies accrete goes like this. As the dust comes into an accretion disk where a star is forming, as it approaches the star it starts to warm. If particles collide at a temperature a little below the melting point of an ice they contain, the heat of collision melts the ice, the melt flows between the bodies then refreezes, gluing the bodies together. The good news is this has been demonstrated very recently in the laboratory for nanometer-sized grains of silicates coated with water ice (Nietadi et al., Icarus, (2020) 113996) so it works. As the dust gets warmer than said melting point, that ice sublimes out, which means there are four obvious different agents for forming planets through ices. In increasing temperatures these are nitrogen/carbon monoxide (Neptune and the Kuiper Belt); argon/methane (Uranus); methanol/ammonia/water (Saturn); and water (Jupiter). The good news is these planets are spread relatively to where expected, assuming the sun’s accretion disk was similar to others. So, in one sense I had a success: my theoretical mechanism gave planetary spacings consistent with observation, and now the initial mechanism of joining for very small-scale particles has been shown to work.

But there was another interesting point. Initially, when these fluffy pieces meet, they will join to give a bigger fluffy piece. This helps accretion because if larger bodies collide, the fluff can collapse, making the impact more inelastic and thus dispersing collisional energy. Given a reasonable number of significant collisions, the body will compact. If, however, there are some late gentle acquisitions of largish fluffy masses, that fluff will remain.Unfortunately, I did not issue a general warning on this, largely because nobody can think of everything, and also I did not expect that to be relevant to any practical situation now.  Rather unexpectedly, it was. You may recall that the European Space Agency landed the probe Philae on comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, which made a couple of bounces and fell down a “canyon”, where it lay on its side. The interesting thing is the second “bounce” was not really a bounce. The space agency has been able to use the imprint of the impact to measure the strength of the ice, and  found it to be “softer than the lightest snow, the froth on your cappuccino or even the bubbles in your bubble bath.” This particular “boulder” on the outside of the comet is comprised of my predicted fluff. It feels good when something comes right. And had ESA read my ebook, maybe they would have designed Philae slightly differently.

Planets Being Formed Now

An intriguing observation, recorded in Nature Astronomy3, 749 (2019) is that two planets are being formed around the star PDS 70, a star about 370 light years from Earth in the constellation of Centaurus. The star is roughly 76% the mass of the sun. Its temperature is 3972 degrees K, so it is a bit cooler than our sun, and is about 1.26 time bigger. What that means is it has yet to collapse properly. Because at least some of the accretion disk is still there, gas is still falling towards the star, and towards any planets that are still forming. Because giants have to form quickly, the huge amount of gas falling into them gets very hot, the planets glow, and if they are far enough away from the star, we can see them through very large telescopes. The first such planet to be observed in this system (Labelled PDS 70 b) is about 7 times as big as Jupiter, and is about 23 AU away from the star, i.e. it is a little further away from its star as Uranus is from our star. (1 AU is the Earth-sun distance.)

We can detect the gas flowing into the planet by the spectral signal Hα at 656.28 nm, and by selecting such a signal much of the general light is filtered out and gas can be seen streaming into planetary objects. The planet PDS 70 b was confirmed in the cited reference, but there is an addition: PDS 70 c, which is about 38 AU from its star, also with about 4 AU uncertainty. This is a bit further away from its star as Neptune is from ours, which suggests an overall system that is a bit more expanded than ours.

These planets are interesting in terms of generating a theory on how planets form. The standard theory is that dust from the accretion disk somehow accretes to form bodies about the size of asteroids called planetesimals, and through gravity these collide to form larger bodies, which in turn through their stronger gravity collide to form what are called embryos or oligarchs, and these are about the size of Mars. These then collide to form Earth-sized planets, and in the outer regions collisions keep going until the cores get to about ten times the size of Earth, then these start accreting gas, until eventually they become giants. Getting rid of heat is a problem, and consequently newly formed giants are very hot and seem like mini-stars.

The problem with that theory is timing. The further away from the star, the dust density is much lower simply because there is more space for it and even if you can form planetesimals, and nobody has any idea how they formed, the space between them gets so big their weak gravity does not lead to useful collisions. There is a way out of this in what is called the Grand Tack model. What this postulates is that Uranus and Neptune both grew a little further out than Saturn, and as they grew to be giants their gravity attracted planetesimals from further out. However, now the model argues they did not accrete them, but instead effectively pulled them in and let them go further in towards the star. By giving them inwards momentum, they got “lift” and moved out. They kept going until Neptune ran out of planetesimals, which occurred at about 32 AU.

Now, momentum is mass times velocity, which means the bigger the planet that is moving, the more planetesimals it needs, although it gets a benefit of being able to throw the planetesimal faster through its stronger gravity. That effect is partly cancelled by the planetesimals being able to pass further away. Anyway, why does a star that is about ¾ the size of our star have more planetesimals that go out almost 20% further. In fairness, you might argue that is a rather weak conclusion because the distances are not that much different and you would not expect exact correspondence. Further, while the masses of the giants are so much bigger than ours, you might argue they travelled then accreted the gas.However, there is worse. Also very recently discovered by the same technique are two planets around the young star TYC 8998-760-1, which is about the same size as the sun. The inner planet has a mass of 14 times that of Jupiter and is 162 AU from the star, and the outer planet has a mass of 6 times that of Jupiter and is 320 AU from the star. It is difficult to believe that one star of the same size as another would inadvertently have a huge distribution of planetesimals scattered out over ten times further. Further, if it did, the star’s metallicity would have to be very much higher. Unfortunately, that has yet to be measured for this star. In my opinion, this strongly suggests that this Grand Tack model is wrong, but that leaves open the question, what is right? My usual answer would be what is outlined in my ebook “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis”, although the outer planet of TYC 8998-760-1 may be a problem. However, that explanation will have to wait for a further post but those interested can make up their minds from the ebook.

A Planet Here Today and Gone Tomorrow

Or, a record for the biggest thing lost! Or, to loose your car keys is careless, but to lose a planet??

As some readers will know, I have my own theory of how planets form from the dust of the accretion disk around stars. The dust is actually micron sized, and finer than an average smoke distribution, and as the gas falls into the star, it gets hot, its potential energy lost being converted to heat, and when it gets hot enough it glows. Of course, it also glows by scattering light emitted by the forming star hence we observe those disks. Standard theory assumes planets form through gravity. The problem here is gravity is far too weak to aggregate this dust, so the standard theory assumes that somehow it forms planetesimals and there is an even distribution of these out to about 32 A.U. (one A.U. is the Earth-Sun distance) where their density falls off dramatically for some unknown reason, although it is necessary they do to prevent more planets being formed further than Neptune. While this is needed to make the theory fit the facts, it is not exactly enlightening, and it is far from clear why Neptune has far more mass than Uranus.

Anyway, I find all this unsatisfactory on many counts. My concept is that getting started involved chemistry, or physical chemistry, in which case what you get depends on the local temperature during accretion. In principle this is quite predictive; in practice not so much because we do not know what the temperatures were for a given system because all evidence of the disk for all systems older than 40 My is long gone. The temperatures depend on the potential energy converted, but that depends on how fast the star is accreting, i.e. the rate of conversion, and for a given size of star, this can vary by a factor of ten. However, there are proportional predictions, i.e. if you have a distribution of planets, it predicts how they should be spaced and what their relative properties should be. Thus besides explaining why Neptune is more massive than Uranus, and there are no planets further out (actually, it does predict the possibility of more, but very far out). It also predicts no life under ice at Europa because the theory predicts there are no significant amounts of nitrogen or carbon, which is verified by observation.

When I published my ebook on planetary formation in 2012, by and large the known observed data matched predicted data surprisingly well, although there was not that much respectable data on multiple systems and for single exoplanets, variation up to an order of magnitude was “tolerable”. However, much of what was generally predicted appeared right, thus red dwarfs, because they had much less material, were expected to have planets closer to the star, and they were. But there was one annoying feature. The star Fomalhaut has a rather odd accretion disk around it, and it appears with the brightest part as a ring very distant from the star. My guess is the star is in the process of ejecting the disk, but maybe that is wrong. Anyway, the disk had a planet that could be seen in a telescope. The problem was, it was somewhere between 100 – 250 A.U. from the star. That by itself was no problem; the star is huge, so planets will be well spread. The problem was, if it were that bright, you should be able to see others, and there were no others. As it happens, this week the problem has gone away because the planet has gone away. More specifically, it was never there. Maybe that should have been suspected. Its light distribution was quite odd, being surprisingly bright in the visible, but seemingly less so in the infrared, which was indicative of surprising heat. Newly formed gas giants can be very hot, due to the energy of the gas falling onto them, so nobody took much notice. However, after a very short time it faded, and now it cannot be seen. What we now think happened was that a collision took place between two objects about 250 km long, and we saw the extreme heat so generated. A very rare occurrence indeed.

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.

Some Unanswered Questions from the Lunar Rocks

In the previous post I hinted that some of what we found from our study of moon rocks raises issues of self-consistency when viewed in terms of the standard paradigm. To summarize the relevant points of that paradigm, the argument goes that the dust in the accretion disk that was left behind after the star formed accreted into Mars-sized bodies that we shall call embryos, and these moved around in highly elliptical orbits and eventually collided to form planets. While these were all mixed up – simulations suggest what made Earth included bodies from outside Mars’ current orbit, and closer to the star than Mercury’s current orbit. These collisions were extraordinarily violent, and the Earth formed from a cloud of silicate vapours that condensed to a ball of boiling silicates at a little under 3000 degrees C. Metallic iron boils at 2862 degrees C, so it was effectively refluxing, and under these conditions it would extract elements such as tungsten and gold that dissolve in iron and take them with it to the core. About sixty million years after Earth formed, one remaining embryo struck Earth, a huge amount of silicates were sent into space, and the Moon condensed from this. The core of this embryo was supposedly iron, and it migrated into the Earth to join our core, leaving the Moon a ball of silicate vapour that had originated from Earth and condensed from something like 10,000 degrees C. You may now see a minor problem for Earth: if this iron took out all the gold, tungsten, etc, how come we can find it? One possibility is the metals formed chemical compounds. That is unlikely because at those temperatures elements that form only moderate-strength chemical bonds would not survive, and since gold is remarkably unreactive, that explanation won’t work. Another problem is that the Moon has very little water and no nitrogen. This easily explained through their being lost to space from the silicate vapours, but where did the Earth get its volatiles? And if the Moon did condense from such high temperatures, the last silicate to condense would be fayalite, but that was not included in the Apollo rocks, or if it were, nothing was made of that. This alone is not necessarily indicative, though, because fayalite is denser than the other olivines, and if there were liquid silicates for long enough it would presumably sink.

The standard paradigm invokes what is called “the late veneer”; after everything was over, Earth got bombarded with carbonaceous asteroids, which contain water, nitrogen, and some of these otherwise awkward metals. It is now that we enter one of the less endearing aspects of modern science: everything tends to be compartmentalised, and the little sub-disciplines all adhere to the paradigm and add small findings that support their view, even if they do not do so particularly well, and there is a reluctance to look at the overall picture. The net result is that while many of the findings can be made to seemingly provide answers to their isolated problems, there is an overall problem with self-consistency. Further, clues that the fundamental proposition might be wrong are carefully shelved.

The first problem was noted at the beginning of the century: the isotope ratios of metals like osmium from such chondrites are different from our osmium. There are various hand-waving argument to the extent that it could just manage if it were mixed with enough of our mantle, but leaving whether the maths are right aside, nobody seems to have noticed the only reason we are postulating this late veneer is that originally the iron stripped all the osmium from the mantle. You cannot dilute A with B if B is not there. There are a number of other reasons, one of which is the nitrogen of such chondrites has more 15N than our nitrogen. Another is to get the amounts of material here we need a huge amount of carbonaceous asteroids, but they have to come through the ordinary asteroids without perturbing them. That takes some believing.

But there is worse. All the rocks found by the Apollo program have none of the required materials and none of the asteroidal isotope signatures. The argument seems to be, they “bounced off” the Moon. But the Moon also has some fairly ferocious craters, so why did the impactors that caused them not bounce off? Let’s suppose they did bounce off, but they did not bounce off the Earth (because the only reason we argue for this is that we need them, so it is said, to account for our supply of certain metals). Now the isotope ratios of the oxygen atoms on the Moon have a value, and that value is constant over rocks that come from deep within the Moon, thanks to volcanism, and for the rocks from the highlands, so that is a lunar value. How can that be the same as Earth’s if Earth subsequently got heavily bombarded with asteroids that we know have different values? My answer, in my ebook “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis” is simple: there were no embryo impacts in forming Earth therefore the iron vapours did not extract out the heavy elements, and there were no significant number asteroid impacts. Almost everything came here when Earth accreted, and while there have been impacts, they made a trivial contribution to Earth’s supply of matter.

The Apollo Program – More Memories from Fifty Years Ago.

As most will know, it is fifty years ago since the first Moon landing. I was doing a post-doc in Australia at the time, and instead of doing any work that morning, when the word got around on that fateful day we all downed tools and headed to anyone with a TV set. The Parkes radio telescope had allowed what they received to be live-streamed to Australian TV stations. This was genuine reality TV. Leaving aside the set picture resolution, we were seeing what Houston was seeing, at exactly the same time. There was the Moon, in brilliant grey, and we could watch the terrain get better defined as the lander approached, then at some point it seemed as if the on-board computer crashed. (As computers go, it was primitive. A few years later I purchased a handheld calculator that would leave that computer for dead in processing power.) Anyway, Armstrong took control, and there was real tension amongst the viewers in that room because we all knew if anything else went wrong, those guys would be dead. There was no possible rescue. The ground got closer, Armstrong could not fix on a landing site, the fuel supply was getting lower, then, with little choice because of the fuel, the ground got closer faster, the velocity dropped, and to everyone’s relief the Eagle landed and stayed upright. Armstrong was clearly an excellent pilot with excellent nerves. Fortunately, the lander’s legs did not drop into a hole, and as far as we could tell, Armstrong chose a good site. Light relief somewhat later in the day to watch them bounce around on the lunar surface. (I think they were ordered to take a 4-hour rest. Why they hadn’t rested before trying to land I don’t know. I don’t know about you, but if I had just successfully landed on the Moon, and would be there for not very long, a four-hour rest would not seem desirable.)

In some ways that was one of America’s finest moments. The average person probably has no idea how much difficult engineering went into that, and how everything had to go right. This was followed up by six further successful landings, and the ill-fated Apollo 13, which nevertheless was a triumph in a different way in that despite a near-catastrophic situation, the astronauts returned to Earth.

According to the NASA website, the objectives of the Apollo program were:

  • Establishing the technology to meet other national interests in space.
  • Achieving preeminence in space for the United States.
  • Carrying out a program of scientific exploration of the Moon.
  • Developing human capability to work in the lunar environment.

The first two appear to have been met, but obviously there is an element of opinion there. It is debatable that the last one achieved much because there has been no effort to return to the Moon or to use it in any way, although that may well change now. Charles Duke turns 84 this year and he still claims the title of “youngest person to walk on the Moon”.

So how successful was the scientific program? In some ways, remarkably, yet in others there is a surprising reluctance to notice the significance of what was found. The astronauts brought back a large amount of lunar rocks, but there were some difficulties here in that until Apollo 17, the samples were collected by astronauts with no particular geological training. Apollo 17 changed that, but it was still one site, albeit with a remarkably varied geological variety. Of course, they did their best and selected for variety, but we do not know what was overlooked.

Perhaps the most fundamental discovery was that the isotopes from lunar rocks are essentially equivalent to earth rocks, and that means they came from the same place. To put this in context, the ratio of isotopes of oxygen, 16O/17O/18O varies in bodies seemingly according to distance from the star, although this cannot easily be represented as a function. The usual interpretation is that the Moon was formed when a small planet, maybe up to the size of Mars, called Theia crashed into Earth and sent a deluge of matter into space at a temperature well over ten thousand degrees Centigrade, and some of this eventually aggregated into the Moon. Mathematical modelling has some success at showing how this happened, but I for one am far from convinced. One of the big advantages of this scenario is that it shows why the Moon has no significant water, no atmosphere, and never had any, apart from some water and other volatiles frozen in deep craters at the South Pole that almost certainly arrived from comets and condensed there thanks to the cold. As an aside, you will often read that the lunar gravity is too weak to hold air. That is not exactly true; it cannot hold it indefinitely, but if it started with carbon dioxide proportional in mass, or even better in cross-sectional area, to what Earth has, it would still have an atmosphere.

One of the biggest disadvantages of this scenario is where did Theia come from? The models show that if the collision, which happened about 60 million years after the Earth formed, occurred from Theia having a velocity much above the escape velocity from Earth, the Moon cannot form. It gets the escape velocity from falling down the Earth’s gravitational field, but if it started far enough further out that would have permitted Theia to have lasted 60 million years, then its velocity would be increased by falling down the solar gravitational field, and that would be enhanced by the eccentricity of its trajectory (needed to collide). Then there is the question of why are the isotopes the same as on Earth when the models show that most of the Moon came from Theia. There has been one neat alternative: Theia accreted at the Earth-Sun fourth or fifth Lagrange point, which gives it indefinite stability as long as it is small. That Theia might have grown just too big to stay there explains why it took so long and starting at the same radial distance as Earth explains why the isotope ratios are the same.

So why did the missions stop? In part, the cost, but that is not a primary reason because most of the costs were already paid: the rockets had already been manufactured, the infrastructure was there and the astronauts had been trained. In my opinion, it was two-fold. First, the public no longer cared, and second, as far as science was concerned, all the easy stuff had been done. They had brought back rocks, and they had done some other experiments. There was nothing further to do that was original. This program had been a politically inspired race, the race was run, let’s find something more exciting. That eventually led to the shuttle program, which was supposed to be cheap but ended up being hideously expensive. There were also the deep space probes, and they were remarkably successful.

So overall? In my opinion, the Apollo program was an incredible technological program, bearing in mind from where it started. It established the US as firmly the leading scientific and engineering centre on Earth, at least at the time. Also, it got where it did because of a huge budget dedicated to one task. As for the science, more on that later.