There may have been times when one generation’s world was much like another’s.
This is not one of those times.
Science textbooks of my youth included speculation that Earth’s mountains exist because our planet has been cooling and shrinking. One of my geology professors didn’t “believe in” continental drift, and that’s another topic.1
Back then, we knew that planets orbit our star, but weren’t sure how the star we call the Sun and the Solar System formed.
We still don’t, for that matter. Not for sure. But the nebular hypothesis, or something very much like it, is a pretty good fit with observations.
I’ll get back to that, and some of what we’ve been learning about planetary systems: including TRAPPIST-1 and its seven worlds.
- Working Out How Suns and Planets Form
- TRAPPIST-1’s Pea Pod Planets
- Living in “a Grain From a Balance”, and Admiring the View
Oversimplifying something fierce, around 1630 René Descartes said that the Solar System got started as a big swirling vortex. These days, we see Descartes’ vortex as an early version of the nebular hypothesis.
He figured the swirling vortex would explain the Sun’s rotation and the planets’ circular orbits. Then Newton wrote about gravity, which Descartes hadn’t covered. Not the way Newton had, at any rate.
Emmanuel Swedenborg, Immanuel Kant, Pierre-Simon Laplace and others either formed or tweaked nebular hypotheses for how the Solar System started.
Fast-forward to the 20th century.
In 1904 or maybe 1905, Forest Moulton and Thomas Chamberlin came up with the planetesimal hypothesis as a model for the Solar System’s formation.
They said that maybe, early on, another star had passed very close to the Sun. This would have raised tidal bulges on both stars. And that, along with supercharged solar prominences, would have left enough material orbiting the sun to form planets.
About three decades later, Raymond Lyttleton said pretty much the same thing: except that the other star collided with the Sun’s companion star, and that debris from the collision formed the planets.
Then in 1951, 1961 and 1981 three Swiss astronomers — never mind the names and don’t bother memorizing this, there won’t be a test — said maybe the Sun was spinning really fast at first, and blorped out material for the planets.2
In 1917, James Jeans said the Solar System happened when another star and the Sun almost ran into each other. Tidal effects would pull massive amounts of stuff out of both stars, which would then condense into planets. That was the idea, anyway.
Harold Jeffreys said that a near-miss like that was wildly unlikely, and Henry Norris Russel said the tidal model had problems with angular momentum. They were both right. But nebular hypotheses have angular momentum issues, too. Problem is, the Sun has 99%-plus of the Solar System’s mass, but only 2% of its angular momentum.
Starting in the 1930s, some scientists started sorting ‘how the Solar System formed’ ideas into categories. There were loads of ideas — I’ve been listing a selection — so they had no shortage of material.
Here’s an over-simplified version of the categories:
- The Sun formed first, then planets formed
- Planets formed from outside dust and gas that just happened to come along
- Another star hit the Sun and that’s where planet-stuff came from
- And the Sun spit out planet-forming stuff
- The Sun and planets formed at pretty much the same time, from the same stuff
It wasn’t until the 1970s that option number 2 got traction again.
A version of the nebular hypothesis had been generally accepted by the end of the 1980s. But it didn’t explain why the Solar System’s planets don’t orbit in exactly the same plane.
And we’re still not sure how the Solar System’s double planet formed. Or whether Earth-Moon should be called a double planet.
I’m okay with the idea, but I’m not a scientist: and don’t have a career built partly on saying that the Moon is a satellite, not the other unit of a binary world.
Maybe I’m being unfair.
Anyway, in 1992 Aleksander Wolszczan and Dale Frail found planets orbiting the pulsar PSR B1257+12.3
Of those, 855 systems have more than one known planet.
That’s the count as of April 1, 2023, at any rate: with thousands of unconfirmed worlds still in Kepler and TESS archives, waiting to be processed.
A few planetary systems look a bit like ours; like 55 Cancri, with its planets e (Janssen), b (Galileo), c (Brahe), f (Harriot) and d (Lipperhey).
Lipperhey is a gas giant, a bit more massive than Jupiter but orbiting about as far from 55 Cancri as Jupiter is from Sol. The others are closer to their sun, spaced very roughly like Mercury, Venus and Earth.
But Galileo, the second planet out from 55 Cancri, is nearly as massive as Jupiter.4
Its eight planets are nicely arranged, with rocky worlds near the sun and gas giants farther out.
So far, this sounds like the planetary systems some of us were expecting. Or hoping for.
And, like I said, it’s about as big and massive as Jupiter.
That was a surprise.
But it wasn’t the first one in our study of exoplanets. I’m pretty sure it won’t be the last.
Before we started charting other planetary systems, assuming that they’d be pretty much like our Solar System made sense.
If there was more than maybe one other planetary system in this galaxy.
Thinking that the Solar System began with an extremely unlikely near-miss or collision with another star had two advantages, of a sort. It kept the study of other worlds close to home, and made our star one of the highly-exclusive ‘I’ve got planets’ club.
After 1992, that obviously wasn’t the case.
Then, after discovering planets around a pulsar, Astronomers figured they might find planets around other pulsars. They did, but not many.
After that first three-planet pulsar system, and after checking at least 800 pulsars, scientists found only four pulsars with a planet. One planet around each.5
I think a take-away here is that what’s discovered early-on isn’t necessarily typical.
Many of the ones spotted by the Kepler space telescope followed a pattern. But it wasn’t the Solar System’s.
[text describing chart at right]
“The architectures of California-Kepler study multi-planet systems with four planets or more. Each row corresponds to the planets around one and the circles represent the radii of planets in the system. Note how many have lines of planets that are roughly the same size.
(Image credit:Lauren Weiss, The Astronomical Journal (January 3, 2018) via NASA News (July 13, 2018))
That chart is from a NASA News article:
“The Architecture of Solar Systems“
Marc Kaufman, NASA News (July 13, 2018)
In many systems, the planets were all roughly the same size as the planet in orbit next to them. (No tiny-Mars-to-gigantic-Jupiter transitions.) This kind of planetary architecture was not found everywhere but it was quite common — more common than random planet sizing would predict….
“…What’s more, [University of Montreal astronomer Lauren] Weiss and her colleagues found that the orbits of these ‘planets in a pod’ were generally an equal distance apart in ‘multi’ of three planets or more. In other words, the distance between the orbits of planet A and planet B was often the same distance as between the orbits of planet B and planet C….”
The NASA article talked about a “peas in a pod” paper in The Astronomical Journal, which is where they got that chart: a screen capture. I’ve put a link in the footnotes.
The ‘pea pod paper’ included a close look at 355 planetary systems.
If I’m counting them right, that chart shows the 51 systems where the star has a mass from 0.67 to 1.26 times the Sun’s and four or more planets. Make that 52, since it includes Sol, our star, a little shy of halfway down the list.
Compared to other multi-planet systems described in that 2018 paper, the Solar System looks like an oddball.
That’s one reason I’ll probably take a closer look at the ‘pea pod paper’ later on.
The Solar System may be well off the 50th percentile, but the TRAPPIST-1 planets follow the similar-size and close-orbits pattern. And that, finally, brings me to TRAPPIST-1 and its planets.6
I doubt that’ll be the pattern’s generally-accepted label, although scientists have gotten less stuffy about names and descriptions. And that’s yet another topic.
TRAPPIST-1 is in the constellation Aquarius, in the general direction of Phi Aquarii; but a whole lot closer: about 40 light-years out.
The star is an ultra-cool red dwarf, with a surface temperature of 2,566 kelvins, give or take 26.
That’s cool for a star, but still hot: around 2,840° centigrade or 4,650° Fahrenheit.
I also mentioned a 2017 paper that talked about TRAPPIST-1’s magnetic field, and how it might set up induction heating in the system’s three innermost worlds.
Oddly enough, none of the TRAPPIST-1 planets have names yet. I don’t know whether that’s because or in spite of it being such a high-profile planetary system.
Getting myself back on-topic, the TRAPPIST-1 planetary system is arguably more orderly than ours.
The planets’ orbits are very nearly circular, and stay within 0.1° of the system’s ecliptic. The Solar System’s planets aren’t nearly as well-aligned, with orbits inclined up to seven degrees from Earth’s:7
- Mercury 7.01°
- Venus 3.39°
- Earth 0°
- Mars 1.85°
- Jupiter 1.31°
- Saturn 2.49°
- Uranus 0.77°
- Neptune 1.77°
Recapping, the TRAPPIST-1 system’s orbits are all basically in the same plane. That plane passes through the Solar System, so the planets regularly pass across the face of their sun from our viewpoint.
This lets astronomers measure the TRAPPIST-1 planets’ size and orbits. And that lets them work out their masses and densities.
Or, rather, their approximate masses and densities. Margins of error get smaller as astronomers get more and more precise data. So I’m hoping we’ll see an update to topics covered by a 2021 paper.
“The 7 Rocky TRAPPIST-1 Planets May Be Made of Similar Stuff“
Calla Cofield, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California; Exoplanets, Feature, NASA (January 22, 2021; updated January 25, 2021) Tony Greicius, editor
“Precise measurements reveal that the exoplanets have remarkably similar densities, which provides clues about their composition.
“The red dwarf star TRAPPIST-1 is home to the largest group of roughly Earth-size planets ever found in a single stellar system. Located about 40 light-years away, these seven rocky siblings provide an example of the tremendous variety of planetary systems that likely fill the universe….”
“…A new study published today in the Planetary Science Journal shows that the TRAPPIST-1 planets have remarkably similar densities. That could mean they all contain about the same ratio of materials thought to compose most rocky planets, like iron, oxygen, magnesium, and silicon. But if this is the case, that ratio must be notably different than Earth’s: The TRAPPIST-1 planets are about 8% less dense than they would be if they had the same makeup as our home planet. Based on that conclusion, the paper authors hypothesized a few different mixtures of ingredients could give the TRAPPIST-1 planets the measured density….”
That article’s “today” was January 22, 2021; so if there hasn’t been more exact data gathered yet, there soon will be. But that article in The Planetary Journal is the most recent I’ve found, so I’ll run with that. Plus whatever I find elsewhere.
Briefly, since it’s Friday afternoon as I write this.
First, about the three possible interiors shown in that illustration:
“Three possible interiors of the TRAPPIST-1 exoplanets. The more precisely scientists know the density of a planet, the more they can narrow down the range of possible interiors for that planet. All seven planets have very similar densities, so they likely have a similar compositions. (NASA/JPL-Caltech (January 22, 2021))”
Next, what the scientists said about looking forward to more precise data:
“…We forecast JWST timing observations and speculate on possible implications of the planet densities for the formation, migration, and evolution of the planet system.”
“Refining the Transit-timing and Photometric Analysis of TRAPPIST-1: Masses, Radii, Densities, Dynamics, and Ephemerides“, Summary; Eric Agol et al., The Planetary Science Journal (January 22, 2021) via iop.org
Although the TRAPPIST-1 planets are all nearly the same density, they’re not identical.
TRAPPIST-1c, for example might be a rocky world with a Venus-like atmosphere; TRAPPIST-1d might be covered in a very deep ocean while TRAPPIST-1e could have been all iron and rock.
Those informed speculations made sense in 2018. Like I’ve said, we keep getting better data, which lets us fine-tune what we know.
Maybe at least some of the TRAPPIST-1 planets have a mantle and core, although not as proportionately large a core as Earth’s. If so, they might have their own significant magnetic fields. How their fields would interact with their sun’s? That, I don’t know.
Which reminds me. TRAPPIST-1 has a strong magnetic field: with a mean strength of about 600 gauss. That’s a lot stronger than the Sun’s overall 10 gauss.8
Maybe, between lower-than-Earth density, stronger-than-Solar magnetic fields and being (probably) tidally locked, with one face always facing their sun, none of the TRAPPIST-1 planets are habitable.
It’s even possible, based on what we know today, that none of them have more than a close-to-vacuum atmosphere.
But, also based on what we know today, some of them might.
Not TRAPPIST-1 b, though. Observations from the Webb telescope showed that the system’s innermost world is hot and airless.9
But much as I’d like us to find another world with life, and people, I won’t insist that we must have neighbors. Or that we must not. Either way, it’s not my decision.
“Our God is in heaven and does whatever he wills.”
Part of my job is admiring the view. I’ve talked about that before:
- “TRAPPIST-1 b Measured by Webb: Hot, Airless“
(April 1, 2023)
- “Galaxies, Gravity and a Hot Terrestrial Planet“
(February 25, 2023)
- “Exoplanets, Dust, and Who Sees Data First?“
(February 11, 2023)
- “Two Nearby Habitable(?) Worlds; Elements for Life“
(February 4, 2023)
- “Exoplanets, Air, and the Marshmallow Planet“
(December 10, 2022)
- Emanuel Swedenborg
- Forest Ray Moulton
- Geophysical global cooling
- History of Solar System formation and evolution hypotheses
- Immanuel Kant
- Mechanical explanations of gravitation
- Molecular cloud
- Newton’s law of universal gravitation
- Pierre-Simon Laplace
- Protoplanetary disk
- René Descartes
- Thomas Chrowder Chamberlin
- Tidal force
- Unit of measurement
- Michael S. Mahoney, via Princeton University (princeton.edu/~hos/Mahoney)
- The World of Descartes; Plenary address to the 7th Annual Conference of the Association for Core Texts and Courses, University of Notre Dame, 5-8 April 2001; published in The Wider World of Core Texts and Courses (ACTC, 2004), 73-83
- “The World, or Treatise on Light“
René Descartes (ca. 1633-1664) Translated by Michael S. Mahoney (1979)
- Rene Descartes — ‘The World’
extracts from Rene Descartes ‘The World’ translated by Michael S. Mahoney
- René Descartes
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (First published December 3, 2008; substantive revision January 16, 2014)
- “A Geologist among Astronomers: The Rise and Fall of the Chamberlin-Moulton Cosmogony, Part 2“
S. G. Brush; Journal for the History of Astronomy, Vol. 9, p.77 (1978) via SAO/NASA Astrophysics Data System (ADS), Harvard
- Aleksander Wolszczan
- Angular momentum
- Dale Frail
- Double planet
- Formation and evolution of the Solar System
- Giant-impact hypothesis
- Harold Jeffreys
- Henry Norris Russell
- History of Solar System formation and evolution hypotheses
- James Jeans
- Molecular cloud
- Nebular hypothesis
- Origin of the Moon
- PSR B1257+12
- Solar System
- Angular Momentum
HyperPhysics, ©C. R. Nave (2016, 2017); Georgia State University
- Angular Momentum
Department of Physics and Astronomy, Vanderbilt
- “Our Solar System’s Cousin?“
NASA/JPL-Caltech Multimedia (updated December 15, 2022)
- “A search for planetary companions around 800 pulsars from the Jodrell Bank pulsar timing programme“
Iuliana C Niţu, Michael J Keith, Ben W Stappers, Andrew G Lyne, Mitchell B Mickaliger; Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society , Volume 512, Issue 2 (May 2022)
- “The Architecture of Solar Systems“
Marc Kaufman, NASA News (July 13, 2018)
- “The California-Kepler Survey. V. Peas in a Pod: Planets in a Kepler Multi-planet System Are Similar in Size and Regularly Spaced“
Lauren M. Weiss, Geoffrey W. Marcy, Erik A. Petigura, Benjamin J. Fulton, Andrew W. Howard, Joshua N. Winn, Howard T. Isaacson, Timothy D. Morton, Lea A. Hirsch, Evan J. Sinukoff, Andrew Cumming, Leslie Hebb, and Phillip A. Cargile; The Astronomical Journal, Volume 155, Number 1 (January 3, 2018) via Institute of Physics (IOP), iop.org
- Naming Exoplanets
IAU (International Astronomical Union)
- “Magma oceans and enhanced volcanism on TRAPPIST-1 planets due to induction heating“
K. G. Kislyakova, L. Noack, C. P. Johnstone, V. V. Zaitsev, L. Fossati, H. Lammer, M. L. Khodachenko, P. Odert, M. Guedel; Nature Astronomy (submitted October 24, 2017) via arXiv
- Observations of Magnetic Fields – J.P. Vallee, Magnetic Fields in Stars and in the Interplanetary Medium
A Knowledgebase for Extragalactic Astronomy and Cosmology; Caltech and Carnegie; Pasadena, California, USA
- “Refining the Transit-timing and Photometric Analysis of TRAPPIST-1: Masses, Radii, Densities, Dynamics, and Ephemerides“
Eric Agol, Caroline Dorn, Simon L. Grimm, Martin Turbet, Elsa Ducrot, Laetitia Delrez, Michaël Gillon, Brice-Olivier Demory, Artem Burdanov, Khalid Barkaoui, Zouhair Benkhaldoun, Emeline Bolmont, Adam Burgasser, Sean Carey, Julien de Wit, Daniel Fabrycky1, Daniel Foreman-Mackey, Jonas Haldemann, David M. Hernandez, James Ingalls, Emmanuel Jehin, Zachary Langford, Jérémy Leconte, Susan M. Lederer, Rodrigo Luger, Renu Malhotra, Victoria S. Meadows, Brett M. Morris, Francisco J. Pozuelos, Didier Queloz, Sean N. Raymond, Franck Selsis, Marko Sestovic, Amaury H. M. J. Triaud and Valerie Van Grootel; The Planetary Science Journal (January 22, 2021) via Institute of Physics (IOP), iop.org
- Last week’s A Catholic Citizen in America post
- “NASA’s Webb Measures the Temperature of a Rocky Exoplanet“
Laura Betz, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland; Margaret Carruthers, Christine Pulliam, Space Telescope Science Institute(STSI), Baltimore, Maryland; Solar System and Beyond, NASA (March 27, 2023)