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Why Does Nature Form Exoplanets Easily?

The ubiquity of worlds beyond our Solar System confounds us

Kevin Heng

2013-05MargHengFA.jpgClick to Enlarge ImageAn area of research that has attracted a lot of attention in the field of astronomy and astrophysics is planet formation: the study of how planets (in our Solar System) and exoplanets (orbiting other stars) form. Astronomers harness the power of telescopes with meter-sized or larger mirrors to search the night sky for exoplanets—and they find loads of them. In the past two years, NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope has located nearly 3,000 exoplanet candidates ranging from sub-Earth-sized minions to gas giants that dwarf our own Jupiter. Their densities range from that of styrofoam to iron. Astronomers find them close to their parent or host stars with scorching temperatures of a few thousand degrees; they also find them distant from their stars, more than 10 times farther away than Jupiter is from our Sun. Perhaps most significant, the Kepler results demonstrate that rocky exoplanets are common in our local cosmic neighborhood—and by extension, our universe at large. Nature seems to have a penchant for forming exoplanets.

As astrophysicists, our goal is to construct hypotheses to explain what we see in nature. We create model universes and exoplanetary systems on paper and in our computers. When our hypotheses stand the tests of data and time, they eventually become accepted as theories. Hypotheses of planet formation are usually forged within two accepted paradigms: core accretion and gravitational instability. Core accretion is the “bottom-up” approach: Large objects form from smaller ones, eventually building up to exoplanets. Gravitational instability is the “top-down” method: Exoplanets form directly from larger structures in the primordial disks of gas and dust orbiting young stars. But when astrophysicists zoom in on the physical details, we find ourselves (and our hypotheses) flummoxed and, quite simply, outclassed by nature. Dust grains do not seem to readily stick. Even if rocks form, they then drift into the star much too quickly, fast enough to preclude their coalescence into larger objects. These larger, kilometer-sized objects, known as planetesimals, are in principle the building blocks of planets. For our Solar System, theorists struggle in modeling to form the rocky cores of the gas giants, Jupiter and Saturn, before the primordial gas of the natal disk dissipates. Even forming Neptune within the paradigm of core accretion takes too long due to its relative remoteness from the Sun. The devil is in the details and, unfortunately, they do matter when trying to construct synthetic exoplanets.

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