Before Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars occupied the inner solar system, there may have been a previous generation of planets that were bigger and more numerous – but were ultimately doomed by Jupiter, according to a new study.
If indeed the early solar system was crowded with so-called super-Earths, it would have looked a lot more like the planetary systems found elsewhere in the galaxy, scientists wrote Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
NASA's Kepler space telescope has found more than 1,000 planets in orbit around other stars, along with more than 4,000 other objects that are believed to be planets but haven't yet been confirmed. Kepler finds these planets by watching their host stars and registering tiny drops in their brightness – a sign that they are being ever-so-slightly darkened by a planet crossing in front of them.
In addition, ground-based telescopes have detected hundreds of exoplanets by measuring the wiggles of distant stars. Those stars wiggle thanks to the gravitational pull of orbiting planets, and the Doppler effect makes it possible to estimate the size of these planets.
The more planetary systems astronomers discovered, the more our own solar system looked like an oddball. Exoplanets – at least the ones big enough for us to see – tended to be bigger than Earth, with tight orbits that took them much closer to their host stars. In multi-planet systems, these orbits tended to be much closer together than they are in our solar system. For instance, the star known as Kepler-11 has six planets closer to it than Venus is to the sun.
Why does our solar system look so different? Astrophysicists Konstantin Batygin of Caltech and Greg Laughlin of UC Santa Cruz summed it up in one word: Jupiter.
Here's what could have happened, according to their models:
In Solar System 1.0, the region closest to the sun was occupied by numerous planets with masses several times bigger than that of Earth. There were also planetesimals, "planetary building blocks" that formed within the first million years after the birth of the sun, Batygin and Laughlin wrote.
This is how things might have stayed if the young Jupiter had stayed put at its initial orbit, between 3 and 10 astronomical units away from the sun. (An astronomical unit, or AU, is the distance between the Earth and the sun. Today, Jupiter's orbit ranges between 5 and 5.5 AUs from the sun.)
But Jupiter was restless, according to a scenario known as the "Grand Tack." In this version of events, Jupiter was swept up by the currents of gas that surrounded the young sun and drifted toward the center of the solar system.
Jupiter, however, was too big to travel solo. All manner of smaller objects would have been dragged along too. With so many bodies in motion, there would have been a lot of crashes.
The result was "a collisional cascade that grinds down the planetesimal population to smaller sizes," the astrophysicists wrote. For the most part, these planetary crumbs were swept toward the sun and ultimately destroyed, like disintegrating satellites falling back to Earth.
The planetesimals wouldn't have been Jupiter's only victims. Assuming the early solar system resembled the planetary systems spied by Kepler and other telescopes, there would have been "a similar population of first-generation planets," the pair wrote. "If such planets formed, however, they were destroyed."
Jupiter probably got about as close to the sun as Mars is today before reversing course, pulled away by the gravity of the newly formed Saturn. That would have ended the chaos in the inner solar system, allowing Earth and the other rocky planets to form from the debris that remained.
"This scenario provides a natural explanation for why the inner Solar System bears scant resemblance to the ubiquitous multi-planet systems" discovered by Kepler and other survey efforts, Batygin and Laughlin wrote.
Although their models show that this is what might have happened, they don't prove that it actually did. But there may be a way to get closer to the truth.
The scientists' equations suggest that if a star is orbited by a cluster of close-in planets, there won't be a larger, farther-out planet in the same system. As astronomers find more exoplanetary systems, they can see whether this prediction holds up.
Also, if far-away solar systems are experiencing a similar series of events, telescopes ought to be able to detect the extra heat thrown off by all of the planetesimal collisions, they added.
Sadly for those hoping to find life on other planets, the pair's calculations also imply that most Earth-sized planets are lacking in water and other essential compounds that can exist in liquid or solid form. As a result, they would be "uninhabitable," they wrote.