Except for the fact that we call it home, for centuries astronomers didnt have any particular reason to believe that our solar system was anything special in the universe. But, beginning with the discovery 10 years ago of the first planet outside our solar system, evidence suggests that, as far as planetary systems go, the solar system might be special indeed.
Instead of the nice circular orbits our nine planets enjoy, most of the more than 160 extrasolar planets detected in the last decade have eccentric orbits: so elongated that many come in very close to the central star and then go out much further away. In a paper to be published April 14 by the journal Nature, astrophysicists at Northwestern University are the first to report direct observational evidence explaining the violent origins of this surprising planetary behavior.
"Our results show that a simple mechanism, often called planet-planet scattering, a sort of slingshot effect due to the sudden gravitational pull between two planets when they come very near each other, must be responsible for the highly eccentric orbits observed in the Upsilon Andromedae system," said Frederic A. Rasio, associate professor of physics and astronomy. "We believe planet-planet scattering occurred frequently in extrasolar planetary systems, not just this one, resulting from strong instabilities. So while planetary systems around other stars may be common, the kinds of systems that could support life, which, like our solar system, presumably must remain stable over very long time scales, may not be so common."
Megan Fellman | EurekAlert!
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