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Why Does Nature Form Exoplanets Easily?

The ubiquity of worlds beyond our Solar System confounds us

Kevin Heng

Working on Theories

Theorists studying core accretion use two approaches. The first is to isolate a piece of the puzzle—such as the meter- size problem—and study the microphysics involved. Such approaches shed light on important pieces of the puzzle of planet formation but lose the big picture. A complementary approach is to use population synthesis, which is an attempt to incorporate all of the physics and chemistry involved in core accretion, starting from dust grains and ending up with exoplanets. Gaps in our knowledge of the details currently prevent the population synthesis framework from being a complete theory, but its redeeming quality is that it provides some falsifiable predictions.

Another solution is to bypass the intermediate steps of growth between dust grains and planetesimals. Protoplanetary disks are usually massive enough that gravity may triumph over pressure support. The fragments that result from gravitational instability may be the size of planetesimals or even exoplanets. The issue then is not that one cannot form structures, but rather that the gravitational instability paradigm lacks predictive power. Again, the devil is in the details. A successful theory of gravitational instability should start from the initial properties of the protoplanetary disk and the conditions imposed upon it by the star—the strength of irradiation, the metallicity of the natal gas (the abundance of elements that are heavier than hydrogen and helium), the mass of the disk—and predict the number of exoplanets that ensue, including their masses and interior structures. In other words, theorists need to build a population synthesis framework for gravitational instability. A theory with such completeness currently eludes us.

The true answer may lie in between the two paradigms. Giant structures may form in the disk, which then collect dust grains within them to form larger particles. An intriguing possibility is the existence of vortices, essentially giant cyclones or hurricanes forming out of the gas in the disk. Vortices have the ability to trap particles within them, much like dust devils on Earth—an old concept with its roots spanning back to the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. An attractive feature of this idea is that vortices would arise naturally from the turbulent gas if it behaves like a two-dimensional fluid. A parcel of fluid “lives” in a two-dimensional world if it is sufficiently buoyant in the third dimension—as it is displaced from its plane of existence, it returns to its original position quickly. The gas swirling around a protoplanetary disk may be regarded as a fluid; the disk also has a finite thickness. Dust tends to collect mostly at the midplane of the disk. It turns out that the midplanes of protoplanetary disks behave like three-dimensional fluids, whereas locations farther away from the midplane, where the solid material needed to grow structure is found in less abundance, behave like two-dimensional fluids. A successful theory of planet formation involving vortices has to identify a mechanism for producing them, predict their lifetimes and elucidate the means by which they will be destroyed.

Perhaps an easier way to provide constraints on hypotheses of planet formation is simply to stare at the planets themselves. Gas giants appear to be more common around stars with higher metallicities, consistent with the notion that one needs more solid material to construct larger cores and trigger runaway accretion of the natal gas. No trend in stellar metallicity is found for the occurrence of rocky exoplanets. When they are found, they tend to be social creatures, located in systems with other rocky brethren. These exoplanetary systems also tend to be “flat,” just like our Solar System— the orbits of the rocky exoplanets lie roughly within the same plane. We now know that “hot Jupiters”—gas giants found implausibly close to their host stars, such that their temperatures are a few thousand degrees—are oddballs (comprising less than one percent of the entire exoplanet population) and loners (without nearby exoplanets as companions), despite being the most common type of exoplanets initially found due to their brightness and large sizes. Furthermore, hot Jupiters are often found in orbital planes that are misaligned with the spin axes of their host stars—in stark contrast to the systems hosting multiple, rocky exoplanets—perhaps providing a clue that they were delivered to their present locations via some kind of scattering mechanism.

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