15.2: Origin of the Solar System—The Nebular Hypothesis
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Our solar system formed at the same time as our Sun as described in the nebular hypothesis. The nebular hypothesis is the idea that a spinning cloud of dust made of mostly light elements, called a nebula, flattened into a protoplanetary disk, and became a solar system consisting of a star with orbiting planets . The spinning nebula collected the vast majority of material in its center, which is why the sun Accounts for over 99% of the mass in our solar system.
Planet Arrangement and Segregation
As our solar system formed, the nebular cloud of dispersed particles developed distinct temperature zones. Temperatures were very high close to the center, only allowing condensation of metals and silicate minerals with high melting points. Farther from the Sun, the temperatures were lower, allowing the condensation of lighter gaseous molecules such as methane, ammonia, carbon dioxide, and water . This temperature differentiation resulted in the inner four planets of the solar system becoming rocky, and the outer four planets becoming gas giants.
Both rocky and gaseous planets have a similar growth model. Particles of dust, floating in the disc were attracted to each other by static charges and eventually, gravity. As the clumps of dust became bigger, they interacted with each other—colliding, sticking, and forming proto-planets. The planets continued to grow over the course of many thousands or millions of years, as material from the protoplanetary disc was added. Both rocky and gaseous planets started with a solid core. Rocky planets built more rock on that core, while gas planets added gas and ice. Ice giants formed later and on the furthest edges of the disc, accumulating less gas and more ice. That is why the gas-giant planets Jupiter and Saturn are composed of mostly hydrogen and helium gas, more than 90%. The ice giants Uranus and Neptune are composed of mostly methane ices and only about 20% hydrogen and helium gases.
The planetary composition of the gas giants is clearly different from the rocky planets. Their size is also dramatically different for two reasons: First, the original planetary nebula contained more gases and ices than metals and rocks. There was abundant hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, and less silicon and iron, giving the outer planets more building material. Second, the stronger gravitational pull of these giant planets allowed them to collect large quantities of hydrogen and helium, which could not be collected by the weaker gravity of the smaller planets.
Jupiter’s massive gravity further shaped the solar system and growth of the inner rocky planets. As the nebula started to coalesce into planets, Jupiter’s gravity accelerated the movement of nearby materials, generating destructive collisions rather than constructively gluing material together . These collisions created the asteroid belt, an unfinished planet, located between Mars and Jupiter. This asteroid belt is the source of most meteorites that currently impact the Earth. Study of asteroids and meteorites help geologist to determine the age of Earth and the composition of its core, mantle, and crust. Jupiter’s gravity may also explain Mars’ smaller mass, with the larger planet consuming material as it migrated from the inner to the outer edge of the solar system .
Pluto and Planet Definition
The outermost part of the solar system is known as the Kuiper belt, which is a scattering of rocky and icy bodies. Beyond that is the Oort cloud, a zone filled with small and dispersed ice traces. These two locations are where most comets form and continue to orbit, and objects found here have relatively irregular orbits compared to the rest of the solar system. Pluto, formerly the ninth planet, is located in this region of space. The XXVIth General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) stripped Pluto of planetary status in 2006 because scientists discovered an object more massive than Pluto, which they named Eris. The IAU decided against including Eris as a planet, and therefore, excluded Pluto as well. The IAU narrowed the definition of a planet to three criteria:
- Enough mass to have gravitational forces that force it to be rounded
- Not massive enough to create a fusion
- Large enough to be in a cleared orbit, free of other planetesimals that should have been incorporated at the time the planet formed. Pluto passed the first two parts of the definition, but not the third. Pluto and Eris are currently classified as dwarf planets
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