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Alien Earths Could Form Earlier than Expected


Building a terrestrial planet requires raw materials that weren’t available in the early history of the universe. The Big Bang filled space with hydrogen and helium. Chemical elements like silicon and oxygen – key components of rocks – had to be cooked up over time by stars. But how long did that take? How many of such heavy elements do you need to form planets?

Previous studies have shown that Jupiter-sized gas giants tend to form around stars containing more heavy elements than the Sun. However, new research by a team of astronomers found that planets smaller than Neptune are located around a wide variety of stars, including those with fewer heavy elements than the Sun. As a result, rocky worlds like Earth could have formed earlier than expected in the universe’s history.

Astronomers call chemical elements heavier than hydrogen and helium “metals.” They measure the metal content, or metallicities, of other stars using the Sun as a benchmark. Stars with more heavy elements are considered metal-rich while stars with fewer heavy elements are considered metal-poor.

Latham and his colleagues examined more than 150 stars known to have planets, based on data from NASA’s Kepler spacecraft. They measured the stars’ metallicities and correlated that with the sizes of the associated planets. Large planets tended to orbit stars with solar metallicities or higher. Smaller worlds, though, were found around metal-rich and metal-poor stars alike.

“Giant planets prefer metal-rich stars. Little ones don’t,” explained Latham.

They found that terrestrial planets form at a wide range of metallicities, including systems with only one-quarter of the Sun’s metal content.

Full Story: http://www.cfa.harvard.edu/news/2012/pr201219.html

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