From Whence Star-burning Planets?

This series started out with the objective of showing how life could have started, and some may be wondering why I have spent so much time talking about the cold giant planets. The answer is simple. To find the answer to a scientific problem we seldom go directly to it. The reason is that when you go directly to what you are trying to explain you will get an explanation, however for any given observation there will be many possible explanations. The real explanation will also explain every connected phenomenon, whereas the false explanations will only explain some. The ones that are seemingly not directed at the specific question you are trying to answer will nevertheless put constraints on what the eventual answer must include. I am trying to make things easier in the understanding department by considering a number of associated things. So, one more post before getting on to rocky planets.

In the previous two posts, I have outlined how I believe planets form, and why the outer parts of our solar system look like they do. An immediate objection might be, most other systems do not look like ours. Why not? One reason is I have outlined so far how the giants form, but these giants are a considerable distance from the star. We actually have rather little information about planets in other systems at these distances. However, some systems have giants very close to the star, with orbits (years) that take days and we do not. How can that be?

It becomes immediately obvious that planets cannot accrete from solids colliding that close to the star because the accretion disk get to over 10,000 degrees C that close, and there are no solids at those temperatures. The possibilities are that either there is some mechanism that so far has not been considered, which raises the question, why did it not operate here, or that the giants started somewhere else and moved there. Neither are very attractive, but the fact these star-burning giants only occur near a few stars suggests that there is no special mechanism. Physical laws are supposedly general, and it is hard to see why these rare exceptions occur. Further, we can see how they might move.

There is one immediate observation that suggests our solar system is expected to be different from many others and that is, if we look again at LkCa 15b, that planet is three times further from the star than Jupiter is from our star, which means the gas and dust there would have more than three times less concentrated, and collisions between dust over nine times rarer, yet it is five times bigger. That star is only 2 – 3 My old, and is about the same size as our star. So the question is, why did Jupiter stop growing so much earlier when it is in a more favourable spot through having denser gas? The obvious answer is Jupiter ran out of gas to accrete much sooner, and it would do that through the loss of the accretion disk. Stars blow away their accretion disks some time between 1 and 30 My after the star essentially finishes accreting. The inevitable conclusion is that our star blew out its disk of gases in the earliest part of the range, hence all the planets in our system will be, on average, somewhat smaller than their counterparts around most other stars of comparable size. Planets around small stars may also be small simply because the system ran out of material.

Given that giants keep growing as long as gas keeps being supplied, we might expect many bigger planets throughout the Universe. There is one system, around the star HR 8799 which has four giants arrayed in a similar pattern to ours, albeit the distances are proportionately scaled up and the four planets are between five and nine times bigger than Jupiter. The main reason we know about them is because they are further from the star and so much larger, hence we an see them. It is also because we do not observe then from reflected light. They are very young planets, and are yellow-white hot from gravitational accretion energy. Thus we can see how planets can get very big: they just have to keep growing, and there are planets that are up to 18 times bigger than Jupiter. If they were bigger, we would probably call them brown dwarfs, i.e. failed stars.

There are some planets that have highly elliptical orbits, so how did that situation arise? As planets grow, they get gravitationally stronger, and if they keep growing, eventually they start tugging on other planets. If they can keep this up, the orbits get more and more elliptical until eventually they start orbiting very close to each other. They do not need to collide, but if they are big enough and come close enough they exchange energy, in which case one gets thrown outwards, possibly completely out of its solar system, and one gets thrown inwards, usually with a highly elliptical orbit. There are a number of systems where planets have elliptical orbits, and it may be that most do, and if they do, they will exchange energy gravitationally with anything else they come close to. This may lead to a sort of gravitational billiards, where the system gets progressively smaller, and of course rocky planets, being smaller are more likely to get thrown out of the system, or to the outer regions, or into the star.

Planets being thrown into the star may seem excessive, nevertheless in the last week it was announced that a relatively new star, RW Aur A, over the preceding year had a 30 fold increase in the amount of iron in its spectrum. The spectrum of a star comes from whatever is on its surface, so the assumption is that something containing a lot of iron, which would be something the size of a reasonably sized asteroid at least, fell into the star. That means something else knocked it out of its orbit, and usually that means the something else was big.

If the orbit is sufficiently elliptical to bring it very close to the star one of two things happen. The first is it has its orbit circularized close to the star by tidal interactions, and you get one of the so-called star-burners, where they can orbit their star in days, and their temperatures are hideously hot. Since their orbit is prograde, they continue to orbit, and now tidal interactions with the star will actually slowly push the planet further from the star, in the same way our moon is getting further from us. The alternative is that the orbit can flip, and become retrograde. The same thing happens as with the prograde planets, except that now tidal interactions lead to the planet slowly falling into the star.

The relevance of all this is to the question, how common is life in the Universe? If we want a rocky planet in a circular orbit in the habitable zone, then we can eliminate all systems with giants on highly elliptical orbits, or in systems with star burners. However, there is a further possibility that is not advantageous to life. Suppose there are rocky planets formed but the star has yet to elimiinate its accretion disk. The rocky planet will also keep growing and in principle could also become a giant. This could be the reason why some systems have Neptune-sized planets or “superEarths” in the habitable zone. They probably do not have life, so now we have to limit the number of possible star systems to those that eliminate their accretion disk very early. That probably elimimates about 90% of them. Life on a planet like ours might be rarer than some like to think.

Star and Planetary Formation: Where and When?

Two posts ago, as a result of questions, I promised to write a post outlining the concept of planetary accretion, based on the current evidence. Before starting that, I should explain something about the terms used. When I say something is observed, I do not mean necessarily with direct eyesight. The large telescopes record the light signals electronically, similarly to how a digital camera works. An observation in physics means that a signal is received that can be interpreted in one only certain way, assuming the laws of physics hold. Thus in the famous two-slit experiment, if you fire one electron through the slits, you get one point impact, which is of too low an energy for the human eye to see. Photomultipliers, however, can record this as a pixel. We have to assume that the “observer” uses laws of physics competently.

The accretion of a star almost certainly starts with the collapse of a cloud of gas. What starts that is unknown, but it is probably some sort of shock wave, such as a cloud of debris from a nearby supernova. Another cause appears to be the collision of galaxies, since we can see the remains of such collisions that are accompanied by a large number of new stars forming. The gas then collapses and forms an accretion disk, and these have been observed many times. The gas has a centre of mass, and this acts as the centre of a gravitational field, and as such, the gas tries to circulate at an orbital velocity, which is where the rate of falling into the star is countered by the material moving sideways, at a rate that takes it away from the star so that the distance from the centre remains the same. If they do this, angular momentum is also conserved, which is a fundamental requirement of physics. (Conservation of angular momentum is why the ice skater spins slowly with arms outstretched; when she tucks her arms in, she spins faster.

The closer to the centre, the strnger gravity requires faster orbital velocity. Thus a stream of gas is moving faster than the stream just further from the centre, and slower than the stream just closer. That leads to turbulence and friction. Friction slows the gas, meaning it starts to fall starwards, while the friction converts kinetic energy to heat. Thus gas drifts towards the centre, getting hotter and hotter, where it forms a star. This has been observed many times, and the rate of stellar accretion is such that a star takes about a million years to form. When it has finished growing, there remains a dust-filled gas cloud of much lower gas density around it that is circulating in roughly orbital velocities. Gas still falls into the star, but the rate of gas falling into the star is at least a thousand times less than during primary stellar accretion. This stage lasts between 1 to 30 million years, at which point the star sends out extreme solar winds, which blow the gas and dust away.

However, the new star cannot spin fast enough to conserve angular momentum. The usual explanation is that gas is thrown out from near the centre, and there is evidence in favour of this in that comets appear to have small grains of silicates that could only be formed in very hot regions. The stellar outburst noted above will also take away some of the star’s angular momentum. However, in our system, the bulk of the angular momentum actually resides in the planets, while the bulk of the mass is in the star. It would seem that somehow, some angular momentum must have been transferred from the gas to the planets.

Planets are usually considered to form by what is called oligarchic growth, which occurs after primary stellar accretion. This involves the dust aggregating into lumps that stick together by some undisclosed mechanism, to make first, stone-sized objects, then these collide to form larger masses, until eventually you get planetesimals (asteroid-sized objects) that are spread throughout the solar system. These then collide to form larger bodies, and so on, at each stage collisions getting bigger until eventually Mars-sized bodies collide to form planets. If the planet gets big enough, it then starts accreting gas from the disk, and provided the heat can be taken away, if left long enough you get a gas giant.

In my opinion, there are a number of things wrong with this. The first is, the angular momentum of the planets should correspond roughly to the angular momentum of the dust, which had velocity of the gas around it, but there is at least a hundred thousand times more gas than dust, so why did the planets end up with so much more angular momentum than the star? Then there is timing. Calculations indicate that to get the core of Jupiter, it would take something approaching 10 million years, and that assumes a fairly generous amount of solids, bearing in mind the solid to gas ratio. At that point, it probably accretes gas very quickly. Get twice as far away from the star, and collisions are much slower. Now obviously this depends on how many planetesimals there are, but on any reasonable estimate, something like Neptune should not have formed. Within current theory, this is answered by having Neptune and Uranus being formed somewhere near Saturn, and then moved out. To do that, while conserving angular momentum, they had to throw similar masses back towards the star. I suppose it is possible, but where are the signs of the residues? Further, if every planet is made from the same material, the same sort of planet should have the same composition, but they don’t. The Neptune is about the same size as Uranus, but it is about 70% denser. Of the rocky planets, Earth alone has massive granitic/feldsic continents.

Stronger evidence comes from the star called LkCa 15 that apparently has a gas giant forming that is already about five times bigger than Jupiter and about three times further away. The star is only 3 million years old. There is no time for that to have formed by this current theory, particularly since any solid body forming during the primary stellar accretion is supposed to be swept into the star very quickly.

Is there any way around this? In my opinion, yes. I shall put up my answer in a later post, although for those who cannot wait, it is there in my ebook, “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis”.

Theory and planets: what is right?

In general, I reserve this blog to support my science fiction writing, but since I try to put some real science in my writing, I thought just once I would venture into the slightly more scientific. As mentioned in previous posts, I have a completely different view of how planets, so the question is, why? Surely everyone else cannot be wrong? The answer to that depends on whether everyone goes back to first principles and satisfies themselves, and how many lazily accept what is put in front of them. That does not mean that it is wrong, however. Just because people are lazy merely makes them irrelevant. After all, what is wrong with the standard theory?

My answer to that is, in the standard theory, computations start with a uniform distribution of planetesimals formed in the disk of gas from which the star forms. From then on, gravity requires the planetesimals to collide, and it is assumed that from these collisions, planets form. I believe there are two things wrong with that picture. The first is, there is no known mechanism to get to planetesimals. The second is that while gravity may be the mechanism by which planets complete their growth, it is not the mechanism by which it starts. The reader may immediately protest and say that even if we have no idea how planetesimals form, something had to start small and accrete, otherwise there would be no planets. That is true, but just because something had to start small does not mean there is a uniform distribution throughout the accretion disk.

My theory is that it is chemistry that causes everything to start, and different chemistries occur at different temperatures. This leads to the different planets having different properties and somewhat different compositions.

The questions then are: am I right? does it matter? To the first, if I am wrong it should be possible to falsify it. So far, nobody has, so my theory is still alive. Whether it matters depends on whether you believe in science or fairy stories. If you believe that any story will do as long as you like it, well, that is certainly not science, at least in the sense that I signed up to in my youth.

So, if I am correct, what is the probability of finding suitable planets for life? Accretion disks last between 1 to even as much as 30 My. The longer the disk lasts, the longer planets pick up material, which means the bigger they are. For me, an important observation was the detection of a planet of about six times Jupiter’s mass that was about three times further from its star (with the name LkCa 15) than Jupiter. The star is approximately 2 My old. Now, the further from the star, the less dense the material, and this star is slightly smaller than our sun. The original computations required about 15 My or more to get Jupiter around our star, so they cannot be quite correct, although that is irrelevant to this question. No matter what the mechanism of accretion, Jupiter had to start accreting faster than this planet because the density of starting material must be seriously greater, which means that we can only get our solar system if the disk was cleared out very much sooner than 2 My. People ask, is there anything special regarding our solar system? I believe this very rapid cleanout of the disk will eliminate the great bulk of the planetary systems. Does it matter if they get bigger? Unfortunately, yes, because the bigger the planets get, the bigger the gravitational interactions between them, so the more likely they are to interact. If they do, orbits become chaotic, and planets can be eliminated from the system as other orbits become highly elliptical.

If anyone is interested in this theory, Planetary Formation and Biogenesis (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B007T0QE6I )

will be available for 99 cents  as a special promo on Amazon.com (and 99p on Amazon.co.uk) on Friday 13, and it will gradually increase in price over the next few days. Similarly priced on Friday 13 is my novel Red Gold, (http://www.amazon.com/dp/B009U0458Y  ) which is about fraud during the settlement of Mars, and as noted in my previous post, is one of the very few examples of a novel in which a genuine theory got started.

Planets for alien life (2)

My last post gave an estimate of how many stars were suitable for having planets with life, if they had rocky planets in the right place. The answer comes out very roughly as one per every five hundred cubic light years. At first sight, not very common, but galaxies are very big, and we end up with about a hundred billion in this galaxy. The next question is, are there further restrictions? Extrasolar planets are reasonably common, according to recent surveys, however most of these found are giants that are very close to the star, and totally unsuited for life. On the other hand, there is a severe bias: the two methods that have yielded the most discoveries favour the finding of large planets close to the star.

To form stars, a large volume of gas begins to collapse, and as it collapses to form a star, it also forms a spinning disk. Three stages then follow. The first stage involves gas falling into the star from an accretion disk at a rate of a major asteroid’s mass each second. The second involves a much quieter stage, where the star has essentially formed, but it still has a disk, which it is accreting at a much slower rate, about a thousandth as fast. Finally, the star has “indigestion” and in a massive burp, clears out what is left of the disk (technically called a T Tauri event). The standard theory has the planets forming in the second stage or, for rocky planets, even following the T Tauri cleanout.

There are two important issues. As the gas falls into the star, both energy and angular momentum must be conserved. The fate of energy is simple: as the gas falls inwards, it gets hotter, and it is simple gravitation that heats the star initially, until it reaches about 80 million degrees, at which point deuterium starts to fuse and this ignites stellar fusion. However, the issue with angular momentum is more difficult. This is like an ice skater – as she brings her arms closer to herself, she starts spinning faster; put out her arms and the spin slows. As the gas heads into the star, the star should spin faster. The problem is, almost all the mass of the solar system is in the star, but almost all the angular momentum is in the planets. How did this happen?

Either all the mass retained its original angular momentum or it did not. If it did, then the sun should be spinning at a ferocious rate. While it could have lost angular momentum by throwing an immense amount of gas back into space, nobody has ever seen this phenomenon. If the stellar mass did not retain its angular momentum, it had to exchange it with something else. In my opinion, what actually happened is that the forming planets took up the angular momentum from gas that then fell into the star. If that is true, every star with enough heavy elements will form planets of some description because it helps stellar accretion. If so, the number of planet-bearing stars is very close to the number of stars.

There is, however, another problem. In my theory (Planetary Formation and Biogenesis for more details) planets simply keep growing until the stage 3 disk clear-out. If they get big enough, mutual gravitational interactions disrupt their orbits and something like billiards occurs. The planets do not collide, but if they come close enough one will be thrown out of the system (astronomers have already detected planets floating around in space, unattached to any star) and the other will end up as a giant very close to the star. A considerable number of such systems have been found. This would totally disrupt Earth-like planets, so stars with planets suitable for life must have had a shorter stage 2.

How short? Stage 2 can last up to 30 million years, although that is probably an exception, while the shortest stage 2 is less than a million years. The answer is, probably no more than a million years, i.e. our planetary system was formed around a star that had a relatively short secondary accretion. The reason I say that is as follows. The rate of accretion of a gas giant should be proportional to how much gas there is around it, and for how long. The amount of gas decreases as the distance from the star increases, and if you double the distance from the star, the gas density decreases somewhere between a half and a quarter. Now the three million year old star LkCa 15 is slightly smaller than our sun but it still has a second stage gas disk. This star has a planet nearly five times as big as Jupiter about three times further away from the star. This almost certainly means that Jupiter must have stopped growing well within three million years. (As an aside, standard theory requires at least 15 million years to start a gas giant.) Fortunately, it appears that about half the stars have such a short secondary stage. If we then say that about half the stars will be in the wrong part of the galaxy, then the estimate of stars that could be suitable for life reduces to about 25 billion. If we further reduce the total by those that are simply too young, or do not have sufficient metallicity, we could reduce the total to about 10 billion. These numbers are very rough, but the message remains: there are plenty of stars suitable to sustain life-bearing planets in the galaxy. The next question is, how many stars will have rocky planets?