The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) recently published a study in their weekly online report suggesting that our solar system looked very differently in its early days. Several larger than Earth but smaller than Neptune bodies, called by scientists super-Earths, use to harbor the inner solar system and apparently Jupiter’s migration is responsible for their complete destruction.
Konstantin Batygin, a Caltech planetary scientist, noticed the difference between the outline of our solar system and most other systems discovered so far, and came to the conclusion that ours is the exception from the rule. “Indeed, it appears that the solar system today is not the common representative of the galactic planetary census, instead we are something of an outlier,” Batygin said.
Astronomer Gregory Laughlin, from University of California Santa Cruz, further compared the two models and noticed the inner part of our solar system is missing. “The standard issue planetary system in our galaxy seems to be a set of super-Earths with alarmingly short orbital periods. Our solar system is looking increasingly like an oddball. It is something I found really curious,” Laughlin explained his interest on the matter.
So, scientists looked back to the “Grand Tack” theory trying to explain the formation of our solar system. According to this theory, an infant, giant Jupiter used to migrate inward and outward a young Sun, destroying in its path all the existing super-Earths, leaving only low mass planets behind.
Jupiter destroyed first generation inhabitants of our solar system
Jupiter’s spiraling spree would have destroyed almost all of the planets in the young solar system if not for the formation of Saturn. According to the Grand Tack theory, Saturn’s gravity made Jupiter stop its spiral, and forced the giant to settle for the position it currently holds, just beyond Mars. “Jupiter would have continued on that belt, eventually being dumped onto the Sun if not for Saturn,” scientists believe.
The theory actually suggests that our solar system consists of a series of second-generation orbital bodies, hence its unique outline. “Jupiter’s inward-outward migration could have destroyed a first generation of planets and set the stage for the formation of the mass-depleted terrestrial planets that our solar system has today,” said Batygin, adding that this explanation fits perfectly with the other discoveries about solar system evolution he and Laughlin made.
The Grand Track theory is a few years old now, and since it was first published in 2011 scientists have been facing many dilemmas. For instance, why didn’t Saturn and Jupiter both start spiraling towards the Sun once their gravitational fields interfered with each other. To settle the debate once and for all, Batygin and Laughlin resorted to the help of a computer generated simulation.
The simulations confirmed their hypothesis, showing it was Jupiter’s movement that forced the super-Earths closer to the Sun and made their orbits elliptical, eventually leading to their disappearance. Their conclusion was that orbital bodies 40 times bigger than the Earth would have been absorbed into the Sun as a result, over a relatively small time-span of 20,000 years.
The study also revealed that the evolution of Saturn played a major role in shaping of our solar system. The formation of gas giants, they argue, generally is a determining factor in the survival of close-in super-Earths that typically populate planetary systems in the galaxy.
Image Source: ABC Science
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