Ross 128b a Habitable Planet?

Recently the news has been full of excitement that there may be a habitable planet around the red dwarf Ross 128. What we know about the star is that it has a mass of about 0.168 that of the sun, it has a surface temperature of about 3200 degrees K, it is about 9.4 billion years old (about twice as old as the sun) and consequently it is very short of heavy elements, because there had not been enough supernovae that long ago. The planet is about 1.38 the mass of Earth, and it is about 0.05 times as far from its star as Earth is. It also orbits its star every 9.9 days, so Christmas and birthdays would be a continual problem. Because it is so close to the star it gets almost 40% more irradiation than Earth does, so it is classified as being in the inner part of the so-called habitable zone. However, the “light” is mainly at the red end of the spectrum, and in the infrared. Even more bizarrely, in May this year the radio telescope at Arecibo appeared to pick up a radio signal from the star. Aliens? Er, not so fast. Everybody now seems to believe that the signal came from a geostationary satellite. Apparently here is yet another source of electromagnetic pollution. So could it have life?

The first question is, what sort of a planet is it? A lot of commentators have said that since it is about the size of Earth it will be a rocky planet. I don’t think so. In my ebook “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis” I argued that the composition of a planet depends on the temperature at which the object formed, because various things only stick together in a narrow temperature range, but there are many such zones, each giving planets of different composition. I gave a formula that very roughly argues at what distance from the star a given type of body starts forming, and if that is applied here, the planet would be a Saturn core. However, the formula was very approximate and made a number of assumptions, such as the gas all started at a uniform low temperature, and the loss of temperature as it migrated inwards was the same for every star. That is known to be wrong, but equally, we don’t know what causes the known variations, and once the star is formed, there is no way of knowing what happened so that was something that had to be ignored. What I did was to take the average of observed temperature distributions.

Another problem was that I modelled the centre of the accretion as a point. The size of the star is probably not that important for a G type star like the sun, but it will be very important for a red dwarf where everything happens so close to it. The forming star gives off radiation well before the thermonuclear reactions start through the heat of matter falling into it, and that radiation may move the snow point out. I discounted that largely because at the key time there would be a lot of dust between the planet and the star that would screen out most of the central heat, hence any effect from the star would be small. That is more questionable for a red dwarf. On the other hand, in the recently discovered TRAPPIST system, we have an estimate of the masses of the bodies, and a measurement of their size, and they have to have either a good water/ice content or they are very porous. So the planet could be a Jupiter core.

However, I think it is most unlikely to be a rocky planet because even apart from my mechanism, the rocky planets need silicates and iron to form (and other heavier elements) and Ross 128 is a very heavy metal deficient star, and it formed from a small gas cloud. It is hard to see how there would be enough material to form such a large planet from rocks. However, carbon, oxygen and nitrogen are the easiest elements to form, and are by far the most common elements other than hydrogen and helium. So in my theory, the most likely nature of Ross 128b is a very much larger and warmer version of Titan. It would be a water world because the ice would have melted. However, the planet is probably tidally locked, which means one side would be a large ocean and the other an ice world. What then should happen is that the water should evaporate, form clouds, go around the other side and snow out. That should lead to the planet eventually becoming metastable, and there might be climate crises there as the planet flips around.

So, could there be life? If it were a planet with a Saturn core composition, it should have many of the necessary chemicals from which life could start, although because of the water/ice live would be limited to aquatic life. Also, because of the age of the planet, it may well have been and gone. However, leaving that aside, the question is, could life form there? There is one restriction (Ranjan, Wordsworth and Sasselov, 2017. arXiv:1705.02350v2) and that is if life requires photochemistry to get started, then the intensity of the high energy photons required to get many photochemical processes started can be two to four orders of magnitude less than what occurred on Earth. At that point, it depends on how fast everything that follows happens, and how fast the reactions that degrade them happen. The authors of that paper suggest that the UV intensity is just too low to get life started. Since we do not know exactly how life started yet, that assessment might be premature, nevertheless it is a cautionary point.


A Giant Planet Around a Dwarf Star

The news here, at least, has made much of the discovery of NGTS-1b, described as a giant planet orbiting a dwarf star. It is supposed to be the biggest planet ever found around such a small star, and it is supposed to be inexplicable how such a big planet could form. One key point that presumably everyone will agree with is, a small star forms because there is less gas and dust in the cloud that will form the star than in the cloud that forms a big star. Accordingly there is less total material to form a planet. Missing from that statement is the fact that in all systems the amount of mass in the planets is trivial compared to the mass of the star. Accordingly, there is nothing at all obscure about an unexpectedly big planet if the planet was just a bit more efficient at taking material that would otherwise go into the star.

So, a quick reality check: the star is supposed to be about 60% the size of the sun, and the planet is about 80% the mass of Jupiter, but has a somewhat larger radius. Planets up to twenty times the size of Jupiter are known around stars that are not more than about three times the size of our sun, so perhaps there is more being made of this “big planet” than is reasonable.

Now, why is it inexplicable how such a large planet could form around a small star, at least in standard theory? The mechanism of formation of planets in the standard theory is that first gas pours in, forms the star, and leaves a residual disk (the planetary accretion disk), in which gas is essentially no longer moving towards the star. That is not true; the star continues to accrete, but several orders or magnitude more slowly. The argument then is that this planetary accretion disk has to contain all the material needed to form the planets, and they have to form fast enough to get as big as they end up before the star ejects all dust and gas, which can take somewhere up to 10 million years (10 My), with a mean of about 3 My. There is some evidence that some disks last at least 30 My. Now the dust collides, sticks (although why or how is always left out in the standard theory) and forms planetesimals, which are bodies of asteroid size. These collide and form bigger bodies, and so on. This is called oligarchic growth. The problem is, as the bodies get larger, the distance between them increases and collision probability falls away, not helped by the fact that the smaller the star, the slower the orbiting bodies move, the less turbulent it will be, so the rate of collisions slows dramatically. For perspective purposes, collisions in the asteroid belt are very rare, and when they occur, they usually lead to the bodies getting smaller, not bigger. There are a modest number of such families of detritus asteroids.

The further out the lower the concentration of matter, simply because there is a lot more space. A Jupiter-sized body has to grow fast because it has to get big enough for its gravity to hold hydrogen, and then actually hold it, before the disk gases disappear. Even accreting gas is not as simple as it might sound, because as the gas falls down the planetary gravitational field, it gets hot, and that leads to some gas boiling off back to space. To get going quickly, it needs more material, and hence a Jupiter type body is argued (correctly, in my opinion) to form above the snow line of water ice. (For the purposes of discussion, I shall call material higher up the gravitational potential “above”, in which case “below” is closer to the star.) It is also held that the snow line is not particularly dependent on stellar mass, in which case various planetary systems should scale similarly. With less material around the red dwarf, and as much space to put it in, everything will go a lot slower and the gas will be eliminated before a planet is big enough to handle it. Accordingly, it seems that according to standard theory, this planet should not form, let alone be 0.036 A.U. from the star.

The distance from the star is simply explained in any theory: it started somewhere else and moved there. The temperature at that distance is about 520 degrees C, and with solar wind it would be impossible for a small core to accrete that much gas. (The planet has a density of less than 1, so like Saturn it would float if put in a big enough tub of water.) How would it move? The simplest way would be if we imagined a Jupiter and a Saturn formed close enough together, when they could play gravitational billiards, whereby one moves close to the star and the other is ejected from the system. There are other plausible ways.

That leaves the question of how the planet forms in the first place. To get so big, it has to form fast, and there is evidence to support such rapid growth. The planet LkCa 15b is around a star that is slightly smaller than the sun, it is three times further out than Jupiter, and it is five times bigger than Jupiter. I believe this makes our sun special – the accretion disk must have been ejected maybe as quickly as 1 My. Simulations indicate that oligarchic growth should not have led to any such oligarchic growth that far out. My explanation (given in my ebook “Planetary Formation and Biogenesis”) is that the growth was actually monarchic. This is a mechanism once postulated by Weidenschilling, in 2004 (Weidenschilling, S., 2004. Formation of the cores of the outer planets. Space Science Rev. 116: 53-56.) In this mechanism, provided other bodies do not grow at a sufficient rate to modify significantly the feed density, a single body will grow proportionately to its cross-sectional area by taking all dust that is in its feed zone, which is augmented by gravitation. The second key way to get a bigger planet is to have the planetary accretion disk last longer. The third is, in my theory, the initial accretion is chemical, and the Jupiter core forms like a snowball, by water ice compression fusing. Further, I argue it will start even while the star is accreting. That only occurs tolerably close to the melting point, so it is temperature dependent. The temperatures are reached very much closer to the star for a dwarf. Finally, the planet forming around a dwarf has one final growth advantage: because the star has a lower gravity, the gas will be drifting towards the star more slowly, so the growing planet, while having a less dense feed, also receives a higher fraction of the feed.

So, in my opinion, apart from the fact the planet is so lose to the star, so far there is nothing surprising about it at all, and the mechanisms for getting it close to the star are there, and there are plenty of other “star-burning” planets that have been found.

Why has the monarchic growth concept not taken hold? In my opinion, this is a question of fashion. The oligarchic growth mechanism has several advantages for the preparation of scientific papers. You can postulate all sorts of initial conditions and run computer simulations, then report those that make any sense as well as those that don’t (so others don’t waste time.) Monarchic growth leaves no real room for scientific papers.