Rocky planets such as Earth and Mars are born when small particles smash together to form larger, planet-sized clusters in a planet-forming disk, but researchers are less sure about how gas-giant planets such as Jupiter and Saturn form. Is core accretion--the process that creates their smaller, terrestrial cousins--responsible? Or could an alternate model known as disk instability--in which the planet-forming disk itself actually fragments into a number of planet-sized clumps--be at work? Could both be possible under different circumstances?
Recent work from the Carnegie Institutions Department of Terrestrial Magnetism explores both possibilities. This and other relevant work regarding planet formation is presented at the NASA Astrobiology Science Conference (AbSciCon) 2006 at the Ronald Reagan Building in Washington, D.C. March 26-30. See http://abscicon2006.arc.nasa.gov/ for details.
Carnegie Fellow Hannah Jang-Condell1 has devised a method to catch the early stages of gas-giant core accretion in the act. If actively accreting cores exist, they should leave a gravitational "dimple" in the planet-forming disk--even if the cores are only a fraction the size of Jupiter. Since disk instability would result in planet-sized fragments straight away, the existence of these young, intermediate-sized cores would be a clear indicator of core accretion.
Alan Boss | EurekAlert!
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