Wandering Jupiter accounts for our unusual solar system

Scientists say Jupiter swept clear the inner solar system, resulting in the formation of a planetary system unlike any other astronomers have yet found


Jupiter is thought to have migrated inward toward the sun before retreating to its current position in the solar system. (Photo credit: NASA/Cassini)

diagram of orbits of extrasolar planets

This diagram shows the orbital distribution of extrasolar planets smaller than Jupiter that have been detected by the Kepler mission, in comparison to the orbits of Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars. Most of these extrasolar planets are much closer to their host stars than the innermost planets of our solar system are to the sun. (Credit: Batygin and Laughlin, PNAS)

Jupiter may have swept through the early solar system like a wrecking ball, destroying a first generation of inner planets before retreating into its current orbit, according to a new study published March 23 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The findings help explain why our solar system is so different from the hundreds of other planetary systems that astronomers have discovered in recent years.

"Now that we can look at our own solar system in the context of all these other planetary systems, one of the most interesting features is the absence of planets inside the orbit of Mercury," said Gregory Laughlin, professor and chair of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz and coauthor of the paper. "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."

The new paper explains not only the "gaping hole" in our inner solar system, he said, but also certain characteristics of Earth and the other inner rocky planets, which would have formed later than the outer planets from a depleted supply of planet-forming material.

Laughlin and coauthor Konstantin Batygin explored the implications of a leading scenario for the formation of Jupiter and Saturn. In that scenario, proposed by another team of astronomers in 2011 and known as the "Grand Tack," Jupiter first migrated inward toward the sun until the formation of Saturn caused it to reverse course and migrate outward to its current position. Batygin, who first worked with Laughlin as an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz and is now an assistant professor of planetary science at the California Institute of Technology, performed numerical calculations to see what would happen if a set of rocky planets with close-in orbits had formed prior to Jupiter's inward migration.

At that time, it's plausible that rocky planets with deep atmospheres would have been forming close to the sun from a dense disk of gas and dust, on their way to becoming typical "super-Earths" like so many of the exoplanets astronomers have found around other stars. As Jupiter moved inward, however, gravitational perturbations from the giant planet would have swept the inner planets (and smaller planetesimals and asteroids) into close-knit, overlapping orbits, setting off a series of collisions that smashed all the nascent planets into pieces.

"It's the same thing we worry about if satellites were to be destroyed in low-Earth orbit. Their fragments would start smashing into other satellites and you'd risk a chain reaction of collisions. Our work indicates that Jupiter would have created just such a collisional cascade in the inner solar system," Laughlin said.

The resulting debris would then have spiraled into the sun under the influence of a strong "headwind" from the dense gas still swirling around the sun. The ingoing avalanche would have destroyed any newly-formed super-Earths by driving them into the sun. A second generation of inner planets would have formed later from the depleted material that was left behind, consistent with evidence that our solar system's inner planets are younger than the outer planets. The resulting inner planets--Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars--are also less massive and have much thinner atmospheres than would otherwise be expected, Laughlin said.

"One of the predictions of our theory is that truly Earth-like planets, with solid surfaces and modest atmospheric pressures, are rare," he said.

Planet hunters have detected well over a thousand exoplanets orbiting stars in our galaxy, including nearly 500 systems with multiple planets. What has emerged from these observations as the "typical" planetary system is one consisting of a few planets with masses several times larger than the Earth's (called super-Earths) orbiting much closer to their host star than Mercury is to the sun. In systems with giant planets similar to Jupiter, they also tend to be much closer to their host stars than the giant planets in our solar system. The rocky inner planets of our solar system, with relatively low masses and thin atmospheres, may turn out to be fairly anomalous.

According to Laughlin, the formation of giant planets like Jupiter is somewhat rare, but when it occurs the giant planet usually migrates inward and ends up at an orbital distance similar to Earth's. Only the formation of Saturn in our own solar system pulled Jupiter back out and allowed Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars to form. Therefore, another prediction of the paper is that systems with giant planets at orbital periods of more than about 100 days would be unlikely to host multiple close-in planets, Laughlin said.

"This kind of theory, where first this happened and then that happened, is almost always wrong, so I was initially skeptical," he said. "But it actually involves generic processes that have been extensively studied by other researchers. There is a lot of evidence that supports the idea of Jupiter's inward and then outward migration. Our work looks at the consequences of that. Jupiter's 'Grand Tack' may well have been a 'Grand Attack' on the original inner solar system."