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Why Does Nature Form Exoplanets Easily?

The ubiquity of worlds beyond our Solar System confounds us

Kevin Heng

Taking a Look

Some of the Kepler telescope discoveries present invaluable puzzles and challenges to our current ideas of planet formation. The Kepler-11 system plays host to six exoplanets with radii ranging from twice to five times that of Earth. Three of these exoplanets have densities less than that of water. All six appear to lie roughly in the same orbital plane. The Kepler-16 system consists of a pair of stars orbited by a Saturnlike exoplanet, a harsh environment for any exoplanet to survive in because of the enhanced gravitational tugs of the stars. A diminutive red dwarf sits at the center of the Kepler-32 system, yet it is orbited by five exoplanets within a distance a third the size of Mercury’s orbit. Perhaps the most puzzling case study comes from the Kepler-36 system. Two planets are found at roughly the same distance from the star: one with a density less than that of water, whereas the other is as dense as iron. Theorists are just coming to grips with these discoveries. The venerable theory of migration—the notion that exoplanets and their progenitors drift through the gaseous disk during assembly—is coming under scrutiny. It may turn out that migration, although an attractive idea for constructing our Solar System, is not really needed to form exoplanetary systems populated by close-in super Earths—Earthlike exoplanets somewhat larger than our Earth, which seem to be an omnipresent breed. Our Solar System appears not to be the dominant outcome of planet formation and it may be exerting a provincial influence on our theoretical ideas. In seeking to map out the universe, we find ourselves to be the exception rather than the norm.

An intriguing idea, suggested during a recent conference on Kepler exoplanets by Renu Malhotra of the University of Arizona, is to search for the transits of planetesimals around the corpses of stars known as white dwarfs. During a transit, a body passes in front of its host star, causing a dip in electromagnetic emissions from the star. By coincidence, the relative size of a planetesimal orbiting a white dwarf is equivalent to that of an Earth orbiting a Sunlike star. Because the Kepler Space Telescope is detecting Earthlike exoplanets around Sunlike stars, the reasoning is that it will be able to do the same for planetesimals transiting white dwarfs. If this idea meets with success, it will be the first time information on planetesimals outside of the Solar System will be obtained. Another fascinating idea concerns the hunt for moons around exoplanets—”exomoons.” The idea is that these exomoons are formed during the final stages of assembly, during a phase of planet formation known as “clean-up,” and may provide some clues on the properties of planetesimals.

If nothing else, one upshot from the numerous recent results is that planet formation is hardly a straightforward process, perhaps going some distance to explaining why nature forms planets and exoplanets more easily than theorists are capable of doing. But ultimately, we still seek a theory of planet formation because we wish to determine how common exoplanets, and life, are in the universe. The Kepler Space Telescope is showing us that about one in 10 stars may have an exoplanet that resembles Earth. For the aficionados, this frequency factor of 0.1 is termed “eta Earth”; it is one of the several factors in Drake’s equation, which seeks to quantify how common exoplanets are around stars, how many of these exoplanets are capable of harboring life, and how many of them actually do host life. From extrapolating the Kepler results, Earthlike exoplanets likely number in the billions for our galaxy alone; unless life is an exceedingly rare event, it must exist elsewhere in the universe. We may never answer all of these questions, but understanding planet formation is a step in the right direction.


The author acknowledges financial and logistical support from the University of Bern, the University of Zürich and the Swiss-based MERAC Foundation. He is grateful to Eric Agol, Dan Fabrycky and Jack Lissauer for enlightening conversations during the Kepler multi-planet conference, held at the Aspen Center for Physics in February 2013, Scott Tremaine and Lucio Mayer for constructive comments on an earlier version of the article, and George Lake for encouragement.


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