Observations of faraway planets have forced a near-total rewrite of the story of how our solar system came to be.
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. “The laws of physics are the same everywhere, but the process of building planets is sufficiently complicated that the system becomes chaotic,” said Alessandro Morbidelli, a leading figure in planetary formation and migration theories and an astronomer at the Côte d’Azur Observatory in Nice, France.
Still, the findings are animating new research. Amid the chaos of world-building, patterns have emerged, leading astronomers toward powerful new ideas. Teams of researchers are working out the rules of dust and pebble assembly and how planets move once they coalesce. Fierce debate rages over the timing of each step, and over which factors determine a budding planet’s destiny. At the nexus of these debates are some of the oldest questions humans have asked ourselves: How did we get here? Is there anywhere else like here?
Indeed, we come from a diffuse cloud of gas and dust. Four and a half billion years ago, probably nudged by a passing star or by the shock wave of a supernova, the cloud collapsed under its own gravity to form a new star. It’s how things went down afterward that we don’t really understand.
The Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) is designed to detect light from cool, millimeter-size objects, such as dust grains around newborn stars. Starting in 2013, ALMA captured stunning images of neatly sculpted infant star systems, with putative planets embedded in the hazy disks around the new stars.
Astronomers previously imagined these disks as smooth halos that grew more diffuse as they extended outward, away from the star. But ALMA showed disks with deep, dark gaps, like the rings of Saturn; others with arcs and filaments; and some containing spirals, like miniature galaxies. “ALMA changed the field completely,” said David Nesvorny, an astronomer at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.Quanta
A key point made here is that after cataloging thousands of extrasolar planets, astronomers still have found “none that remotely resemble ours.” Earth’s status as The Privileged Planet continues to be upheld with ongoing research.