Artist's impression of the new exoplanet in Proxima Centauri. Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

New explanation for alien planet formation

A new method of planet formation, previously unexplored in scientific literature, has been discovered by researchers.


Scientists have unveiled a new explanation for how alien planets form. The research team at the University of Warwick delved into the nascent surroundings of planets— the whirlwind of gas and dust encircling a central star, known as the protoplanetary disc.

A new explanation for alien planet formation

In this arena, they unearthed a unique process of planet formation, hitherto unexplained in earlier research. The study, submitted to the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, is being presented at the National Astronomy Meeting commencing on Monday, 3rd July. The researchers demonstrated how the protoplanetary disc’s two massive planets could conceivably spawn a tinier planet sandwiched between them— a process they’ve dubbed “sandwiched planet formation.” To date, it is wroth noting that astronomers have confirmed the existence of more than 5,400 exoplanets.

This unique creation happens because the two larger planets initially limit the inflow of dust. Consequently, the accumulation of dust sandwiched between them decreases compared to a scenario without an outer planet. If this dust coalesces into a planet, the middle one is likely to be smaller than the outer planets— much like a sandwich’s filling.


Understanding the Genesis of Smaller Planets

While the field still requires more extensive research, this theory could propose a plausible explanation for the birth of smaller planets. For instance, Mars and Uranus, each flanked by larger planets, might have been formed through this process.

Associate Professor and Dorothy Hodgkin Fellow, Farzana Meru, from the Department of Physics at the University of Warwick, explains, “In the past decade, we’ve found that protoplanetary discs host rings and gaps. We anticipate planets in the gaps and theoretical work indicates that dust rings are formed just outside them due to planets. The exact happenings within these rings pose a significant question to astronomers worldwide.”

“In our research,” she continues, “we posit that these rings are planet formation sites; more precisely, sandwiched planets are being formed in these rings. This is a significant departure from traditional views of planet formation, where we believe planets form sequentially from the disc’s interior to its exterior, growing in mass further out. Interestingly, we’ve discovered examples from exoplanet observations that display this sandwiched planet architecture— where the central planet is less massive than its neighbors; a considerable proportion of the systems also exhibit this pattern.”


Pioneering Research in Planet Formation

Meru concludes, “The planet formation field has witnessed a radical transformation recently. High-resolution images of planet-forming discs have emerged in the last decade thanks to a new sophisticated telescope, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array. These images have offered insights into planet formation and evolution. It’s thrilling to be spearheading this research.”

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Written by Ivan Petricevic

I've been writing passionately about ancient civilizations, history, alien life, and various other subjects for more than eight years. You may have seen me appear on Discovery Channel's What On Earth series, History Channel's Ancient Aliens, and Gaia's Ancient Civilizations among others.

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