See Inside May 2008

The Chaotic Genesis of Planets

Long viewed as a stately procession to a foregone conclusion, planetary formation turns out to be startlingly chaotic

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 Although they are, in cosmic terms, mere scraps—insignificant to the grand narrative of heavenly expansion—planets are the most diverse and intricate class of object in the universe. No other celestial bodies support such a complex interplay of astronomical, geologic, and chemical and biological processes. No other places in the cosmos could support life as we know it. The worlds of our solar system come in a tremendous variety, and even they hardly prepared us for the discoveries of the past decade, during which astronomers have found more than 200 planets.

The sheer diversity of these bodies’ masses, sizes, compositions and orbits challenges those of us trying to fathom their origins. When I was in graduate school in the 1970s, we tended to think of planet formation as a well-ordered, deterministic process—an assembly line that turns amorphous disks of gas and dust into copies of our solar system. Now we are realizing that the process is chaotic, with distinct outcomes for each system. The worlds that emerge are the survivors of a hurly-burly of competing mechanisms of creation and destruction. Many are blasted apart, fed into the fires of their system’s newborn star or ejected into interstellar space. Our own Earth may have long-lost siblings that wander through the lightless void.

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