Rocky Planet Atmospheres

Where did the rocky planets get their atmospheres from? This question is not trivial. Planets accrete by some mechanism whereby dust particles form larger objects and sooner or later these form planets. However, when they are small, they are either in a vacuum, or earlier they are in the gas that is falling into the sun and which will make the sun. If they are in a vacuum there is no gas to accrete. If they are in the gas streaming into the star they will absorb some gas more or less in proportion to what is in the gas stream, with some preference of heavier gas per unit concentration. However, that preference will not mean much because the concentration of hydrogen is so high it will swamp out most of the rest. When the rocky planet gets big enough, it will form an atmosphere from the accretion disk gas, so these two mechanisms predict either no atmosphere (accretion after the disk gas is gone) or gas that is predominantly hydrogen and helium.

When the sun ejected its accretion disk, it continued to send out a flux of high-energy UV radiation. What is expected to happen then is this would boil the hydrogen atmosphere into space, and this hydrodynamic outflow would take most of the other gases with it. None of the rocky planets in our solar system has enough gravity to hold hot hydrogen and helium for long. So any gas accreted so far is either underground or lost to space. The rocky planets start without an atmosphere, except maybe residual heavy gas that was not blown away by the strong UV. The only gases that are likely to have been so held are krypton and xenon, and they have an excess of heavy isotopes that indicate they may be such residues.

The next possibility is the gases were trapped underground and emitted volcanically after the extreme UV from the sun had stopped. Now the hydrogen and helium could leak away to space slowly and leave everything else behind. But we know that our atmosphere is not a remnant of gas from the accretion disk held by gravity or absorption because if it were, neon is about as common as nitrogen in those gases, and they would be absorbed at about the same rate and both would be held equally by gravity. If our atmosphere was delivered that way, it should contain at least 0.6 bar of neon, which is many orders of magnitude greater than what we see. Neon is a very rare gas on Earth.

Attempts to answer this question have mixed results, and tend to divide scientists into camps, wherein they defend their positions vigorously. One school of thought has the gases were forced into a magma ocean that arises from the heat of the collisions of entities about the size of Mars. I disagree with this. Should this have happened, the time taken to get the collisions going (originally estimated as 100 million years, subsequently reduced to about 30 million years with some unspecified correction to the calculations to accommodate the planet being here when the Moon-forming collision occurred) the gas would have long gone. And if the calculations were so wrong and it did happen, we are back to the neon problem.

The usual way out of this is to argue the gases came from carbonaceous chondrites, which are supposedly bits knocked off asteroids from the outer part of the asteroid belt. Such chondrites sometimes have quite reasonable amounts of water in them, as well as solids containing carbon and nitrogen. The idea is that these hit the earth, get hot, and the water oxidises the carbonaceous material to liberate carbon dioxide and nitrogen gas. Ten years ago I published the first edition of my ebook “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis”, which contained evidence that this could not be the source of the gases. The reasons were numerous and some of them complex, but one simple reason is the three rocky planets all have different proportions of the different elements. How can this happen if they came from a common source?

Now, a paper has appeared (Péron and Mukhopadhyay, Science 377: 320 – 324) that states that the krypton gas in the Chassigny meteorite, shows Mars accreted chondritic volatiles before nebular gases. I have a logic problem with this: the nebula gases were there before Mars even started forming. There was never any time that there was a Mars and the nebular gases had yet to arrive. They then found the krypton and xenon had isotope ratios that fell on a line between cosmogenic and what they assigned as trapped Martian mantle gases. There is a certain danger in this because the rock would have been exposed to cosmic rays, which lead to spallation and isotope alteration. Interestingly, the xenon data contradicts a previous report by Ott in 1948 (Geochim Cosmochim Acta 52: 1937 – 1948), who found the xenon was solar in nature. It may be that these differences can be simply explained because these are taken from a meteorite and only very small amounts of the meteorite are allowed to be taken. The samples may not be representative. Interestingly Péron and Mukhopadhyay consider the meteorite to have come from the Martian interior, based on the observation by Ott that the sample had been heated to a high temperature and was presumably of volcanic nature. The problem I see with that is that Ott came to the same conclusion for a number of other meteorites that have quite different isotope ratios. It is usually wrong to draw major conclusions from an outlier result. Anyway, based on the argument that Ott thought this meteorite was igneous, this latest paper concludes that its rare gases came from the interior of Mars, and hence show the volatiles did not come from carbonaceous chondrites.

In my opinion, the conclusion is valid, but not for the right reasons. What annoys me is the example that a previous researcher thought the sample might have been volcanic rock is assume to have come from deep in the interior now, while the previous results that do not fit the proposition are put to one side. I think that small differences from two tiny samples show you should not draw conclusions. I know there are funding pressures on scientists to publish papers, but surely everything in their work and previous work they quote should be self-consistent or reasons be found for discrepancies.

The First Atmosphere

Ι have now published the second edition of my ebook “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis”. It has just under 1290 references, each about a different aspect of the issue, although there is almost certainly a little double counting because references follow chapters, and there will be some scientific papers that are of sufficient importance to be mentioned in two chapters. Nevertheless, there is plenty of material there. The reason for a second edition is that there has been quite a lot of additional; information from the past decade. And, of course, no sooner did I publish than something else came out, so I am going to mention that in this post. In part this is because it exemplifies some of what I think is wrong with modern science. The paper, for those interested, is from Wilcoski et al. Planet Sci J. 3: 99. It is open access so you can read it.

First, the problem it attempts to address: the standard paradigm is that Earth’s atmosphere was initially oxidised, and comprised carbon dioxide and nitrogen. The question then is, when did this eventuate? What we know is the Earth was big enough that if still in the accretion disk it would have had an atmosphere of hydrogen and helium. If it did not accrete until after the disk was expelled, it would have no atmosphere initially, and an atmosphere had to come from some other process. The ebook shows the evidence and in my opinion it probably had the atmosphere of hydrogen. Either way, the accretion disk gets expelled, and assuming our star was the same as others, for the first few hundred million years the star gave off a lot of extremely energetic UV radiation, and that would be sufficient to effectively blow any atmosphere away. So under that scenario, for some number of hundred million years there would be no atmosphere.

There is an opposing option. Shortly after the Moon-forming event, there would be a “Great Bombardment” of massive impactors. There are various theories this would form a magma ocean and there is a huge steam atmosphere, but there is surprisingly little evidence for this, which many hold onto no matter what. The one piece of definite evidence are some zircons from the Jack Hills in Australia, and these are about 4.2 – 4.3 billion years old – the oldest of any rock we have. Some of these zircons show clear evidence that they formed under temperatures not that different from today. In particular, there was water that had oxygen isotope ratios expected of water that had come from rain.

So, let me revisit this paper. The basic concept is that the Earth was bombarded with massive asteroids and the iron core hit the magma ocean, about half of it was sent into the atmosphere (iron boils at 2861 degrees C) where it reacted with water to form hydrogen and ferrous oxide. The hydrogen reacted with nitrogen to form ammonia.

So, what is wrong with that? First, others argue that iron in the magma ocean settles to the core. That, according to them, is why we have a core. Alternatively, others argue if it comes from an asteroid, it emulsifies in the magma. Now we have the iron doing three different kind of things depending on what answer you want. It can do one of them, but not all of them. Should iron vapour get into the atmosphere, it would certainly reduce steam and make hydrogen, but then the hydrogen would not do very much, but rather would be lost to space because of the sun’s UV. The reaction of hydrogen with nitrogen only proceeds to make much ammonia when there is intense pressure. That could happen deep underground. However, in atmospheric pressure at temperatures above the boiling point of iron, ammonia would immediately dissociate and form nitrogen and hydrogen. The next thing that is wrong is that very few asteroids have an iron core. If one did, what would happen to the asteroid when it hit magma? As an experiment, throw ice into water and watch what happens before it tries to reverse its momentum and float (which an asteroid would not do). Basically, the liquid is what gets splashed away. Rock is a very poor conductor of heat, so the asteroid will sink quite deeply into the liquid and will have to melt off the silicates before the iron starts to melt, and then, being denser, it will sink to the core. On top of that it was assumed the atmosphere contained 100 bars of carbon dioxide, and two bars of nitrogen, in other words an atmosphere somewhat similar to that of Venus today. Assuming what was there to get the answer you want is, I suppose, one way of going about things, in a circular sort of way. However, with tidal heating from a very close Moon, such an atmosphere with that much water would never rain, which contradicts the zircon data. What we have is a story that contradicts the very limited physical evidence we have, which has no evidence in favour of it, and was made up to get the answer wanted so they could explain where the chemicals that formed life might have come from. Needless to say, my ebook has a much better account, and has the advantage that no observations contradict it.

What Happens Inside Ice Giants?

Uranus and Neptune are a bit weird, although in fairness that may be because we don’t really know much about them. Our information is restricted to what we can see in telescopes (not a lot) and the Voyager fly-bys, which, of course, also devoted a lot of attention to the Moons, since a lot of effort was devoted to images. The planets are rather large featureless balls of gas and cloud and you can only do so much on a “zoom-past”. One of the odd things is the magnetic fields. On Earth, the magnetic field axis corresponds with the axis of rotation, more or less, but not so much there. Earth’s magnetic field is believed to be due to a molten iron core, but that could not occur there. That probably needs explaining. The iron in the dust that is accreted to form planets is a fine powder; the particles are in the micron size. The Earth’s core arises because the iron formed lumps, melted, and flowed to the core because it is denser. In my ebook “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis” I argue that the iron actually formed lumps in the accretion disk. While the star was accreting, the region around where Earth is reached something like 1600 degrees C, above the melting point of iron, so it formed globs. We see the residues of that in the iron-cored meteorites that sometimes fall to Earth. However, Mars does not appear to have an iron core. Within that model, the explanation is simple. While on Earth the large lumps of iron flowed towards the centre, on Mars, since the disk temperature falls off with distance from the star, at 1.5 AU the large lumps did not form. As a consequence, the fine iron particles could not move through the highly viscous silicates, and instead reacted with water and oxidised, or, if you prefer, rusted.

If the lumps that formed for Earth could not form at Mars because it was too far away from the star, the situation was worse for Uranus. As with Mars, the iron would be accreted as a fine dust and as the ice giants started to warm up from gravitational collapse, the iron, once it got to about 500 degrees Centigrade, would rapidly react with the water and oxidise to form iron oxides and hydrogen. Why did that not happen in the accretion disk? Maybe it did, and maybe at Mars it was always accreted as iron oxides, but by the time it got to where Earth is, there would be at least ten thousand times more hydrogen than iron, and hot hydrogen reduces iron oxide to iron. Anyway, Uranus and Neptune will not have an iron core, so what could generate the magnetic fields? Basically, you need moving electric charge. The planets are moving (rotating) so where does the charge come from?

The answer recently proposed is superionic ice. You will think that ice melts at 0 degrees Centigrade, and yes, it does, but only at atmospheric pressure. Increase the pressure and it melts at a lower temperature, which is how you make snowballs. But ice is weird. You may think ice is ice, but that is not exactly correct. There appear to be about twenty ices possible from water, although there are controversial aspects because high pressure work is very difficult and while you get information, it is not always clear about what it refers to. You may think that irrespective of that, ice will be liquid at the centre of these planets because it will be too hot for a solid. Maybe.

In a recent publication (Nature Physics, 17, 1233-1238 November 2021) authors studied ice in a diamond anvil cell at pressures up to 150 GPa (which is about 1.5 million times greater than our atmospheric pressure) and about 6,500 degrees K (near enough to Centigrade at this temperature). They interpret their observations as there being superionic ice there. The use of “about” is because there will be uncertainty due to the laser heating, and the relatively short times up there. (Recall diamond will also melt.)

A superionic ice is proposed wherein because of the pressure, the hydrogen nuclei can move about the lattice of oxygen atoms, and they are the cause of the electrical conduction. These conditions are what are expected deep in the interior but not at the centre of these two planets. There will presumably be zones where there is an equilibrium between the ice and liquid, and convection of the liquid coupled with the rotation will generate the movement of charge necessary to make the magnetism. At least, that is one theory. It may or may not be correct.

Your Water Came from Where?

One interesting question when considering why Earth has life is from where did we get our water? This is important because essentially it is the difference between Earth and Venus. Both are rocky planets of about the same size. They each have similar amounts of carbon dioxide, with Venus having about 50% more than Earth, and four times the amount of nitrogen, but Venus is extremely short of water. If we are interested in knowing about whether there is life on other planets elsewhere in the cosmos, we need to know about this water issue. The reason Venus is hell and Earth is not is not that Venus is closer to the Sun (although that would make Venus warmer than Earth) but rather it has no water. What happened on Earth is that the water dissolved the CO2 to make carbonic acid, which in turn weathered rocks to make the huge deposits of lime, dolomite, etc that we have on the planet, and to make the bicarbonates in the sea.

One of the more interesting scientific papers has just appeared in Nature Astronomy (https://doi.org/10.1038/s41550-021-01487-w) although the reason I find it interesting may not meet with the approval of the authors. What the authors did was to examine a grain of the dust retrieved from the asteroid Itokawa by the Japanese Space agency and “found it had water on its surface”. Note it had not evaporated after millions of years in a vacuum. The water is produced, so they say, by space weathering. What happens is that the sun sends out bursts of solar wind which contains high velocity protons. Space dust is made of silicates, which involve silica bound to four oxygen atoms in a tetrahedron, and each oxygen atom is bound to something else. Suppose, for sake of argument, the something else is a magnesium atom. A high energy hydrogen nucleus (a proton) strikes it and makes SiOH and, say Mg+, with the Mg ion and the silicon atom remaining bound to whatever else they were bound to. It is fairly standard chemistry that 2SiOH → SiOSi plus H2O, so we have made water. Maybe, because the difference between SiOH on a microscopic sample of dust and dust plus water is rather small, except, of course, Si-OH is chemically bound to and is part of the rock, and rock does not evaporate. However, the alleged “clincher”: the ratio of deuterium to hydrogen on this dust grain was the same as Earth’s water.

Earth’s water has about 5 times more deuterium than solar hydrogen, Venus about a hundred times. The enhancement arises because if anything is to break the bond in H-O-D, the hydrogen is slightly more probable to go because the deuterium has a slightly stronger bond to the oxygen. Also, being slightly heavier, H-O-D is slightly less likely to get to the top of the atmosphere.

So, a light bulb moment: Earth’s water came from space dust. They calculate that this would produce twenty litres of water for every cubic meter of rock. This dust is wet! If that dust rained down on Earth it would deliver a lot of water. The authors suggest about half the water here came that way, while the rest came from carbonaceous chondrites, which have the same D/H ratio.

So, notice anything? There are two problems when forming a theory. First, the theory should account for everything of relevance. In practice this might be a little much, but there should be no obvious problems. Second, the theory should have no obvious inconsistencies. First, let us look at the “everything”. If the dust rained down on the Earth, why did not the same amount rain down on Venus? There is a slight weakness in this argument because if it did, maybe the water was largely destroyed by the sunlight. If that happened a high D/H ratio would result, and that is found on Venus. However, if you accept that, why did Earth’s water not also have its D/H ratio increased? The simplest explanation would be that it did, but not to extent of Venus because Earth had more water to dilute it. Why did the dust not rain down on the Moon? If the answer is the dust had been blown away by the time the Moon was formed, that makes sense, except now we are asking the water to be delivered at the time of accretion, and the evidence on Mars was that water was not there until about 500 million years later. If it arrived before the disk dust was lost, then the strongest supply of water would come closest to the star, and by the time we got to Earth, it would be screened by inner dust. Venus would be the wettest and it isn’t.

Now the inconsistencies. The strongest flux of solar wind at this distance would be what bombards the Moon, and while the dust was only here for a few million years, the Moon has been there for 4.5 billion years. Plenty of time to get wet. Except it has not. The surface of the dust on the Moon shows this reaction, and there are signs of water on the Moon, especially in the more polar regions, and the average Moon rock has got some water. But the problem is these solar winds only hit the surface. Thus the top layer or so of atoms might react, but nothing inside that layer. We can see those SiOH bonds with infrared spectroscopy, but the Moon, while it has some such molecules, it cannot be described as wet. My view is this is another one of those publications where people have got carried away, more intent on getting a paper that gets cited for their CV than actually stopping and thinking about a problem.

Interstellar Travel Opportunities.

As you may have heard, stars move. The only reason we cannot see this is because they are so far away, and it takes so long to make a difference. Currently, the closest star to us is Proxima Centauri, which is part of the Alpha Centauri grouping. It is 4.2 light years away, and if you think that is attractive for an interstellar voyage, just wait a bit. In 28,700 years it will be a whole light year closer. That is a clear saving in travelling time, especially if you do not travel close to light speed.

However, there have been closer encounters. Sholz’s star, which is a binary; a squib of a red dwarf plus a brown dwarf, came within 0.82 light years 78,000 years ago. Our stone age ancestors would probably have been unaware of it, because it is so dim that even when that close it was still a hundred times too dim to be seen by the naked eye. There is one possible exception to that: occasionally red dwarfs periodically emit extremely bright flares, so maybe they would see a star appear from nowhere, then gradually disappear. Such an event might go down in their stories, particularly if something dramatic happened. There is one further possible downside for our ancestors: although it is unclear whether such a squib of a star was big enough, it might have exerted a gravitational effect on the Oort cloud, thus generating a flux of comets coming inwards. That might have been the dramatic event.

That star was too small to do anything to disrupt our solar system, but it is possible that much closer encounters in other solar systems could cause all sorts of chaos, including stealing a planet, or having one stolen. They could certainly disrupt a solar system, and it is possible that some of the so-called star-burning giants were formed in the expected places and were dislodged inwards by such a star. That happens when the dislodged entity has a very elliptical orbit that takes it closer to the star where tidal effects with the star circularise it. That did not happen in our solar system. Of course, it does not take a passing star to do that; if the planets get too big and too close their gravity can do it.

It is possible that a modestly close encounter with a star did have an effect on the outer Kuiper Belt, where objects like Eris seem to be obvious Kuiper Belt Objects, but they are rather far out and have very elliptical orbits. It would be expected that would arise from one or more significant gravitational interactions.

The question then is, if a star passed closely should people take advantage and colonise the new system? Alternatively, would life forms there have the same idea if they were technically advanced? Since if you had the technology to do this, presumably you would also have the technology to know what was there. It is not as if you do not get warning. For example, if you are around in 1.4 million years, Gliese 710 will pass within 10,000 AU of the sun, well within the so-called Oort Cloud. Gliese 710 is about 60% the mass of the sun, which means its gravity could really stir up the comets in the Oort cloud, and our star will do exactly the same for the corresponding cloud of comets in their system. In a really close encounter it is not within the bounds of possibility that planetary bodies could be exchanged. If they were, the exchange would almost certainly lead to a very elliptical orbit, and probably at a great distance. You may have heard of the possibility of a “Planet 9” that is at a considerable distance but with an elliptical orbit has caused highly elliptical orbits in some trans Neptunian objects. Either the planet, if it exists at all, or the elliptical nature of the orbits of bodies like Sedna, could well have arisen from a previous close stellar encounter.

As far as I know, we have not detected planets around this star. That does not mean there are not any because if we do not lie on the equatorial plane of that star we would not see much from eclipsing observations (and remember Kepler only looks at a very small section of the sky, and Gliese 710 is not in the original area examined) and at that distance, any astronomer with our technology there would not see us. Which raises the question, if there were planets there, would we want to swap systems? If you accept the mechanism of how planets form in my ebook “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis”, and if the rates of accretion, after adjusting for stellar mass for both were the same, then any rocky planet in the habitable zone is likely to be the Mars equivalent. It would be much warmer and it may well be much bigger than our Mars, but it would not have plate tectonics because its composition would not permit eclogite to form, which is necessary for pull subduction. With that knowledge, would you go?

Unexpected Astronomical Discoveries.

This week, three unexpected astronomical discoveries. The first relates to white dwarfs. A star like our sun is argued to eventually run out of hydrogen, at which point its core collapses somewhat and it starts to burn helium, which it converts to carbon and oxygen, and gives off a lot more energy. This is a much more energetic process than burning hydrogen to helium, so although the core contracts, the star itself expands and becomes a red giant. When it runs out of that, it has two choices. If it is big enough, the core contracts further and it burns carbon and oxygen, rather rapidly, and we get a supernova. If it does not have enough mass, it tends to shed its outer matter and the rest collapses to a white dwarf, which glows mainly due to residual heat. It is extremely dense, and if it had the mass of the sun, it would have a volume roughly that of Earth.

Because it does not run fusion reactions, it cannot generate heat, so it will gradually cool, getting dimmer and dimmer, until eventually it becomes a black dwarf. It gets old and it dies. Or at least that was the theory up until very recently. Notice anything wrong with what I have written above?

The key is “runs out”. The problem is that all these fusion reactions occur in the core, but what is going on outside. It takes light formed in the core about 100,000 years to get to the surface. Strictly speaking, that is calculated because nobody has gone to the core of a star to measure it, but the point is made. It takes that long because it keeps running into atoms on the way out, getting absorbed and re-emitted. But if light runs into that many obstacles getting out, why do you think all the hydrogen would work its way to the core? Hydrogen is light, and it would prefer to stay right where it is. So even when a star goes supernova, there is still hydrogen in it. Similarly, when a red giant sheds outer matter and collapses, it does not necessarily shed all its hydrogen.

The relevance? The Hubble space telescope has made another discovery, namely that it has found white dwarfs burning hydrogen on their surfaces. A slightly different version of “forever young”. They need not run out at all because interstellar space, and even intergalactic space, still has vast masses of hydrogen that, while thinly dispersed, can still be gravitationally acquired. The surface of the dwarf, having such mass and so little size, will have an intense gravity to make up for the lack of exterior pressure. It would be interesting to know if they could determine the mechanism of the fusion. I would suspect it mainly involves the CNO cycle. What happens here is that protons (hydrogen nuclei) in sequence enter a nucleus that starts out as ordinary carbon 12 to make the element with one additional proton, which then decays to produce a gamma photon, and sometimes a positron and a neutrino until it gets to nitrogen 15 (having been in oxygen 15) after which if it absorbs a proton it spits out helium 4 and returns to carbon 12. The gamma spectrum (if it is there) should give us a clue.

The second is the discovery of a new Atira asteroid, which orbits the sun every 115 days and has a semi-major axis of 0.46 A.U. The only known object in the solar system with a smaller semimajor axis is Mercury, which orbits the sun in 89 days. Another peculiarity of its orbit is that it can only be seen when it is away from the line of the sun, and as it happens, these times are very difficult to see it from the Northern Hemisphere. It would be interesting to know its composition. Standard theory has it that all the asteroids we see have been dislodged from the asteroid belt, because the planets would have cleaned out any such bodies that were there from the time of the accretion disk. And, of course, we can show that many asteroids were so dislodged, but many does not mean all. The question then is, how reliable is that proposed cleanout? I suspect, not very. The idea is that numerous collisions would give the asteroids an eccentricity that would lead them to eventually collide with a planet, so the fact they are there means they have to be resupplied, and the asteroid belt is the only source. However, I see no reason why some could not have avoided this fate. In my ebook “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis” I argue that the two possibilities would have clear compositional differences, hence my interest. Of course, getting compositional information is easier said than done.

The third “discovery” is awkward. Two posts ago I wrote how the question of the nature of dark energy might not be a question because it may not exist. Well, no sooner had I posted, than someone came up with a claim for a second type of dark energy. The problem is, if the standard model is correct, the Universe should be expanding 5 – 10% faster than it appears to be doing. (Now, some would say that indicates the standard model is not quite right, but that is apparently not an option when we can add in a new type of “dark energy”.) This only applied for the first 300 million years or so, and if true, the Universe has suddenly got younger. While it is usually thought to be 13.8 billion years old, this model has it at 12.4 billion years old. So while the model has “invented” a new dark energy, it has also lost 1.4 billion years in age. I tend to be suspicious of this, especially when even the proposers are not confident of their findings. I shall try to keep you posted.

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.