New theories are taking shape about how planets are made

By | June 9, 2022

Rebecca Boyle writes:

Start at the center, with the sun. Our middle-aged star may be more placid than most, but it is otherwise unremarkable. Its planets, however, are another story.

First, Mercury: More charred innards than fully fledged planet, it probably lost its outer layers in a traumatic collision long ago. Next come Venus and Earth, twins in some respects, though oddly only one is fertile. Then there’s Mars, another wee world, one that, unlike Mercury, never lost layers; it just stopped growing. Following Mars, we have a wide ring of leftover rocks, and then things shift. Suddenly there is Jupiter, so big it’s practically a half-baked sun, containing the vast majority of the material left over from our star’s creation. Past that are three more enormous worlds — Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune — forged of gas and ice. The four gas giants have almost nothing in common with the four rocky planets, despite forming at roughly the same time, from the same stuff, around the same star. The solar system’s eight planets present a puzzle: Why these?

Now look out past the sun, way beyond. Most of the stars harbor planets of their own. Astronomers have spotted thousands of these distant star-and-planet systems. But strangely, they have so far found none that remotely resemble ours. So the puzzle has grown harder: Why these, and why those?

The swelling catalog of extrasolar planets, along with observations of distant, dusty planet nurseries and even new data from our own solar system, no longer matches classic theories about how planets are made. Planetary scientists, forced to abandon decades-old models, now realize there may not be a grand unified theory of world-making — no single story that explains every planet around every star, or even the wildly divergent orbs orbiting our sun. [Continue reading…]

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