The Formation of the Giant Planets

Before I can discuss how we got the elements required for life delivered to Earth, it is necessary to work out how the planets formed, and why we have what we have. While the giant planets are almost certainly not going to have life, at least not as we would recognise it, they are important because what we have actually gives some important clues as to how planets form, and hence how common life will be, and why so many exoplanetary systems are so different from ours. The standard theory says a core accreted, then when it got sufficiently big, which calculations have at about 10 to 12 times the Earth mass it starts accreting gas in substantial amounts and it grows very slowly, the problem restricting growth being how it can compress its volume and get rid of the heat so generated. After a number of million years, its mass gets big enough, and it accretes everything that comes into range. Apart from the rather slow time the calculations give, that general description is almost certainly essentially correct. The reason we believe the core has to get to about 10 – 12 Earth masses before disk gases get accreted in serious amounts is because the evidence is the Neptune and Uranus have about 2 Earth masses of hydrogen and helium. So far, reasonably good. The fact that there is evidence the calculations are wrong is not damning; the fact that if the mechanism is not properly understood in close detail then the calculations will inevitably be wrong. The original calculations had these stages taking about 10 My to get to a planet the size of Jupiter. The very first calculations had it taking about a billion years to get to Neptune, but that obviously cannot be right because the disk gases had long gone before that. The real problem is how to get to the cores.

The standard theory says they started by the accretion of a distribution of planetesimals that were formed by the accretion of dust, and therefore were distributed according to the dust concentrations through the disk. There are two problems with this for me. First, we see these disks, and we see them because their dust scatters light. Some such disks are 30 My old and still dusty, so the dust itself is not rapidly accreting, altough often there are bands where there seems to be little dust. The second problem is that there is no recognized mechanism by which the dust can accrete and stick together strongly enough not to be disrupted by any other dustball that collides with it. Mathematics indicate that such dustballs, if they reach about 2 cm size, erode from gas motion relative to them.

So, how did the cores form? I think we have evidence from the fact their systems all have different compositions. The theory I outlined in my ebook Planetary Formation and Biogenesis goes like this. The dust that comes from deep space has a lot of very fluffy ice around it, and this has many pores. Within those pores, and around the ice, are the ices of other volatiles. (Such compound ices have been made in the lab, and their behaviour verified.) As the ices come in, the more volatile ones start subliming away at temperatures a little above their melting point, and hydrogen has even been maintained as an ice enclosed in water ice pores up to a little under 15 degrees K, which is well above its boiling point. So, as the ices come in and the disk gets gradually hotter, the ices selectively boil away. The relevant temperatures are: neon (~25 K); nitrogen and carbon monoxide (~65 K); argon and methane (~ 85); ammonia and methanol (~170 K); water (273 K).

What I suggest happened is the same mechanism that forms snowballs started planetary accretion. When snow is squeezed at a temperature a little below its triple point, the pressure causes localised melt fusion, and the particles stick together. In this case we have several ices entrained in the ice/dust, and I suggest the same happens for each ice. This has consequences. The temperature profile in these disks is observed to be where the temperature T is proportional to r^-0.75, r the distance from the star, with a significant variation, which is expected because the faster the gas comes in, or the warmer it was to start with, the further out a specific temperature will be found, while the denser the gas flow, the greater the temperature gradient. Now, because Jupiter is the biggest planet, and water ice is the most common single material, assume (like everyone else) that Jupiter is more or less where the water ice so fuses. If we assume the average disk temperature profile (actually r^-0.82 is better for what follows for our solar system) then the remaining giants are quite close to where they are supposed to be. So the mechanism is that ices come together, they hit, the collisional energy melts an ice in the impact zone such that they rapidly refreeze, and the particles stick together. To predict where the planets should be I put Jupiter at 5.2 A.U. as a water-ice core sets the constant of proportionality. The next ice is ammonia/methanol/water, which could melt between 164 – 195 oK, which suggests that Saturn should be between 7.8 – 9.6 A.U. Saturn has a semimajor axis of 9.5 A.U. The next ice out is methane/argon, with melting between 84 – 90 oK. The calculated position of Uranus is between 20-21.7 A.U., while the observed position is 19.2 A.U. The next ice, carbon monoxide/nitrogen melts between 63 – 68 oK, which predicts Neptune to be between 28.1 – 30.7 A.U., and Neptune has a semimajor axis of 30 A.U. Note that as they form, we excpect some movement through gravitational interactions and the effects of the gas.

This means the Jovian system is both nitrogen and carbon deficient, apart from Jupiter itself which accreted gas from the disk, and the very tenuous atmosphere of Europa is reported to actually have more sodium in it than nitrogen. Sorry, but no life under the ice at Europa because there is nothing much with which to have organic chemistry. The reason for the lack of atmosphere is the satellites have nothing in them that could form a gas at those temperatures. The major component is hydroxyl, from the photochemiclo deomposition of water, but this is extremely reactive and does not build up.

The Saturnian system has water, plus methanol and ammonia. The ammonia has been seen at Enceladus, and its decay product during UV radiation, nitrogen, is the main gas of Titan. The methane there will come from reactions of methanol and rocks. The Uranian system has methane and argon. Unfortunately the satellites are too small to have atmospheres, and Neptune’s satellites are similar, as while Triton has nitrogen volcanoes, it is probably a captured Kuiper Belt object, as it orbits Neptune the wrong way. However the atmosphere of Neptune has more nitrogen than expected from the accretion disk, whereas Uranus does not. More specific details are in the ebook, but in my opinion, the above describes reasonably well how these systems formed, and why they have the chemical composition we see. The Kuiper belt objects are the same as the core of Neptune, and are essentially a “tail” of the accretion process.

Finally, the perceptive will notice the possibility of two further zones of accretion. Further out, there will be a zone where neon trapped in ice might accrete, and even further out, because hydrogen can be trapped in ice even up to about 15 K, a hydrogen accretion zone where the liquid hydrogen dissolves neon, which then refreezes. The latter is not impossible. There are exoplanets a few hundred A.U. from the star, or, say, over ten times further than Neptune. On the other hand, there is a further mechanism that could form them, namely collapse of the disk, which presumably starts the star. So I should be able to predict where this planet 9 is? That is not so easy because the temperature of the disk follows the above relationship only approximately, and when we get down to these low temperatures, any deviation, including the initial temperature of the gas (which in the above relation is taken as zero, but it isn’t) suddenly becomes important. My published estimate for a neon-based planet is at a hundred A.U., with a possible minus 30 and a plus fifty A.U. Not exactly helpful. If I knew thie initial temperature, and the rate of heat loss from the disk by radiation at those distances I could be far more precise.