The Fate of Top Down Planets

Avid readers may remember a few years ago I blogged about the statistics of objects formed by disc fragmentation. In our paper, we looked at tidal downsizing, to see if big fluffy disc fragments with masses bigger than Jupiter could form solid cores and lose their gas to become objects of Neptune, maybe even Earth masses.  We created what’s known as a population synthesis model – this is essentially a way of running lots of simulations very quickly to get lots of output data, in our case lots of fragments which have evolved to form objects (or not, as the case may be).

We discovered that making terrestrial planets is very hard – after producing millions of disc fragmentation events in our model, only one of those objects went on to make an Earthlike body. In fact, we lost about half of the fragments to tidal disruption – they were ripped to shreds by getting too close to their star before they had become fully formed. Most of the surviving fragments were giant planets or brown dwarfs orbiting at about Neptune’s distance from the Sun. 

Our one in a million Earthlike planet formed by tidal downsizing, all alone at the bottom of the plot.
Our one in a million Earthlike planet formed by tidal downsizing, all alone at the bottom of the plot.

But, our model was incomplete. We wanted to run millions of simulations, so we had to simplify the physics quite a bit. This is a common problem for population synthesis models, as they need to run to completion without it taking millions of years! The only way to beat it is by using clever algorithms and lots of supercomputer power. 

One of the most important pieces of physics we jettisoned early on was fragment-fragment interactions. Our discs were fragmenting to form multiple objects with relatively strong gravitational fields – they should be pulling on each other and changing their orbits.   Also, the systems were likely to still be in their parent star cluster. All those nearby stars would have a gravitational effect as well! 

Instead, our fragments coast along on nice circular orbits.  We didn’t add gravitational interactions to the model because it would have needed extra computational power, and would have taken much longer to produce results. Also, we knew that in the simulation, the disc would have been the biggest nearby source of gravity, and would have acted to smooth out these orbital changes. 

But eventually, the disc will disappear. Then what happens? We decided to run our models through N Body simulations to find out. With the help of Richard Parker, we placed our systems into his star cluster simulations, and we ran separate simulations to find out whether the planetary systems the model produced were stable. 

An example of an unstable planetary system produced by the population synthesis model.  Four bodies orbit the star initially - two bodies get launched away from the host star, leaving two in stable orbits.
An example of an unstable planetary system produced by the population synthesis model. Four bodies orbit the star initially – two bodies get launched away from the host star, leaving two in stable orbits.

So what did happen? One thing that happened quite a lot (about 25% of the time) is that a planet or brown dwarf gets ejected from the system. This means that if disc fragmentation happens regularly, we should see lots of free floating planets! Many of the bodies still orbit quite far from the star, but they now have very eccentric orbits. We know that some exoplanets have very eccentric orbits, like HD 8606b, so that is a sensible outcome.  Our simulations can now give us some predictions for what we should see with the next generation of direct imaging surveys, and we are working with observers to figure out whether our predictions match up with what they are now seeing.

Some, but not many, of the bodies get pushed very close to the star, probably close enough to become Hot Jupiters. This is where it gets interesting, because these will look very similar to Hot Jupiters formed by other planet formation mechanisms, like core accretion. How do we tell them apart?  This is something we’re working on right now, and I hope to tell you more about it soon. 

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What makes a Brown Dwarf and a Massive Gas Giant Different? Have Your Say

I’m off to the University of Hertfordshire in Hatfield, to speak at a conference on what makes exoplanets and brown dwarfs different (if anything).

mind_the_gap_v1.0Brown dwarfs are objects that don’t have enough mass to fuse hydrogen into helium (like our Sun does).  We know that a star can fuse hydrogen when its mass is about 0.08 times the mass of the Sun (or around 80 times the mass of Jupiter), and this sets a rather neat upper mass limit for brown dwarfs.  Where it gets really messy is the lower mass limit.

Traditionally, the lower mass limit for a brown dwarf is taken to be 13 Jupiter masses, as theory tells us this mass is the minimum required to fuse deuterium.  Below this mass, no nuclear fusion of any consequence can happen, and the object is “merely” a rather big gas giant planet.

Planet - or Brown Dwarf?
Planet – or Brown Dwarf? via Discovery News

This is the usual line taken by astronomers who aren’t in the brown dwarf game. It is a very simple rubric, but a little misleading, as it doesn’t reflect the arguments currently brewing in the field, fuelled by the latest infrared observations of very faint objects.  Glibly, the arguments are split into two camps – the formation argument, or the composition argument.  Is a pizza a pizza because of how it is made, or because of its ingredients?  As I tend to form what appear to be both planets and brown dwarfs in my simulations, I tend to feel the ingredients are more important, but there are probably several ways to make a brown dwarf, which muddies the waters significantly.

This conference will be laying out the current observational evidence from exoplanets and very low mass stars (or very massive planets, depending on your view), as well as new work on the theory behind how they are made.  As we learn more about the composition and interior structure of these objects from spectroscopy, and the many different formation mechanisms available, the old mass arguments are starting to look a bit too simple.

Interestingly, the organisers of the conference are polling the community, testing how they distinguish between planets and brown dwarfs.  They’re very keen for this poll to be completed by as many specialists and nonspecialists as possible, so click the link to find out more!

Alternatively, you can click here for some recent, tangentially related pedantry of my own…

Doing the Statistics on Top Down Planet Formation

I’m currently at the RAS National Astronomy Meeting 2013, and the back of my neck is burning, as I’m giving two talks on papers I’ve recently published, and I haven’t blogged about either of them (this post is coming back to bite me in the bottom once more).

Regular readers will know that a main research interest of mine has been the fragmentation of self-gravitating protostellar discs.  When stars are formed, they form a disc also, and it seems to be the case that in the very earliest stages of the star’s life, the mass of the disc it hosts is about the same as the mass of the star itself.

When the conditions are right, the disc becomes catastrophically unstable, and breaks up into fragments more massive than Jupiter.  It has long been suggested that these fragments can evolve into gas giant planets, providing an alternative theory of planet formation, as opposed to the standard theory of planet formation called core accretion, where planets are formed from growing dust grains in the disc into pebbles, boulders and eventually protoplanets.

Fragments being born in a self-gravitating protostellar disc.  But what happens next?
Fragments being born in a self-gravitating protostellar disc. But what happens next?

The very large mass of the disc fragments has led most theorists to rule out disc fragmentation as a means of making Earthlike planets, and an uneasy truce has developed between the two theories.  Core accretion seems to form low mass planets close to their star, and disc fragmentation seems to form massive planets (and brown dwarfs) at large distances from their star.

This truce is now at breaking point, as disc fragmentation theorists have proposed that disc fragments could be the progenitors of Earths after all,  via a process dubbed tidal downsizing.

When the disc fragment is born, it possesses a swarm of dust grains entrained in its gas.  Just like in core accretion, this swarm can collide and grow the grains, and begin to settle towards the centre of the fragment (for a nice analogy, think sediments settling in river beds).  If enough of this dust reaches the centre of the fragment, it collapses under its own gravity to form a core.

At the same time, the fragment is migrating, moving closer to the star, as the disc gravity begins to act on it.  The fragment is also trying to collapse under its own gravity, squeezing the gas as well as the dust into a smaller size.  The fragment is racing against time to compress to a small size before it gets too close to the star – if it fails, then the upper layers of the fragment are stripped off (this is the tidal downsizing in question).

Hopefully you can see that there are many different resulting objects you can make, depending on how quickly these different physical processes act.  Fragments that can compress quickly make giant planets and brown dwarfs (with and without solid cores).  Fragments that compress slowly, but allow dust to settle and become a core quickly will lose most of their gas and become terrestrial planets.  Fragments that compress slowly but don’t allow dust to settle quickly are destroyed, sometimes leaving behind half-grown dust and asteroid belts.

The real question we now have to ask: Which of these objects is made the most often? How often should we expect terrestrial planets to be formed via tidal downsizing, or do disc fragments still end up as massive planets and brown dwarfs?

We attempted to answer this question using population synthesis modelling.  Core accretion theory has been using population synthesis for many years, but disc fragmentation has lacked this capability until now.  Our work in fragmentation criteria allowed us to plug several theoretical gaps and create a model that investigates the fragmentation process and the crucial first million years after fragmentation.

Despite generating over a million disc fragments, we made only one Earthlike object.  To make it, we had to slow down the fragment migration process to a crawl, which is probably not particularly reflective of reality.  In fact, we discovered that the tidal downsizing process often results in complete destruction of the fragment (this happened for nearly half of all the fragments we generated).  The fragments that survived this process are (you guessed it) massive objects at large distances from the star.

Our one in a million Earthlike planet formed by tidal downsizing, all alone at the bottom of the plot.
Our one-in-a-million Earthlike planet formed by tidal downsizing, all alone at the bottom of the plot.  The rest are giant planets, brown dwarfs and low mass stars.

So it seems that the truce between disc fragmentation and core accretion remains.  For now.  We haven’t yet managed to put in all the physics we want to, and some of the physics we included was quite simple.  Any of these additions or changes to the model could produce more Earths, and put the two formation theories into direct competition.  Watch this space…