A two-step formation process of the early Solar System

A new theoretical framework for the formation and structure of the Solar System.

New research presents a new theoretical system for the formation and structure of the Solar System that can clarify a few key highlights of the terrestrial planets (like Earth, Venus, and Mars), outer Solar System (like Jupiter), and composition of asteroids and meteorite families.

The study conducted by an international team of researchers from the University of Oxford, LMU Munich, ETH Zurich, BGI Bayreuth, and the University of Zurich discovered that a two-step formation process of the early Solar System could explain the chronology and split in volatile and isotope content of the inner and outer Solar System.

The work draws on and connects ongoing advances in astronomy and meteoritics—laboratory experiments and investigations on the isotope, iron, and water content in meteorites.

The suggested combination of astrophysical and geophysical phenomena during the earliest formation phase of the Sun and the Solar System can explain why the inner Solar System planets are small and dry with little water by mass, while the outer Solar System planets are larger and wet with lots of water.

The inner terrestrial protoplanets accreted early and were internally heated by strong radioactive decay; this dried them out and split the internal, dry from the outer, wet planetary populace. This has a few ramifications for the distribution and important formation states of planets like Earth in extrasolar planetary systems.

Several experiments performed by scientists showed that the relative chronologies of early-stage and extended completion of accretion in the internal Solar System and a later beginning and more rapid growth of the outer Solar System planets could be clarified by two distinct formation epochs of planetesimals, the building blocks of the planets.

Recent observations of planet-forming disks showed that disk midplanes, where planets form, may have relatively low turbulence levels. Under such conditions, the interactions between the dust grains embedded in the disk gas and water around the orbital location where it transitions from gas to ice phase (the snow line) can trigger an early formation burst of planetesimals inner Solar System and another one later and further out.

The two distinct formation episodes of the planetesimal populations, which further accrete material from the surrounding disk and via mutual collisions, result in different geophysical modes of internal evolution for the forming protoplanets.

Dr. Tim Lichtenberg from the Department of Atmospheric, Oceanic, and Planetary Physics at the University of Oxford and lead author of the study notes“The different formation time intervals of these planetesimal populations mean that their internal heat engine from radioactive decay differed substantially. Inner Solar System planetesimals became very hot, developed interior magma oceans, quickly formed iron cores, and degassed their initial volatile content, resulting in dry planet compositions. In comparison, outer Solar System planetesimals formed later and therefore experienced substantially less internal heating and therefore limited iron core formation and volatile release.”

“The early-formed and dry inner Solar System and the later-formed and wet outer Solar System were therefore set on two different evolutionary paths very early on in their history. This opens new avenues to understand the origins of the earliest atmospheres of Earth-like planets and the place of the Solar System within the context of the exoplanetary census across the galaxy.”

This research was supported by funding from the Simons Collaboration on the Origins of Life, the Swiss National Science Foundation, and the European Research Council.

Journal Reference:
  1. “Bifurcation of planetary building blocks during Solar System formation” Science (2021). DOI:10.1126/science.abb3091

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