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Earth-like planets may be more rare than thought

July 30, 2004 By Philip Ball This article courtesy of Nature News.

In cosmic terms, our solar system could be special after all.

We could be alone in the Universe after all. The discovery during the past decade of over a hundred planets around other stars has encouraged many scientists to think that habitable planets like ours might be common. But a recent study tells them to think again.

Martin Beer of the University of Leicester, UK, and co-workers argue that our Solar System may be highly unusual, compared with the planetary systems of other stars. In a preprint published on Arxiv1, they point out that the alien planets we have seen so far could have been formed by a completely different process from the one that formed ours. If that is so, says Beer, "there won't necessarily be lots of other Earths up there".

Most of the planets around other stars, known as extrasolar planets, are detected from the wobble that they induce in their own sun's motion. This wobble is caused by the gravitational tug of the planet on the star. Because stars are much bigger than planets, the effect is tiny, and it is only in the past decade that telescopes have been sensitive enough to detect it.

Even then, the wobble is detectable only for giant planets, which are those about as big as Jupiter, the bloated ball of gas in our Solar System. It is not possible at present to detect planets as small as the Earth.

Jupiter is not habitable: it is too cold, and is mostly composed of dense gas. And it is unlikely that extrasolar giant planets would support life either. But astronomers generally assume that if they detect such a planet in a distant solar system, it is likely to be accompanied by other, smaller planets. And maybe some of the smaller planets in these systems are just like Earth.

This is what Beer and colleagues now dispute. They say that the properties of almost all the known extrasolar planets are quite different from those of Jupiter.

Hot Jupiters

There are 110 of these extrasolar planets, at the latest count, and they are all between about a tenth and ten times as massive as Jupiter. Most of them are, however, much closer to their sun than Jupiter is to ours: they are known as 'hot Jupiters'. They also tend to have more elongated orbits than those of Jupiter and the Earth, both of which orbit the Sun on almost circular paths.

Ever since Copernicus displaced the Earth from the centre of the Universe, astronomers have tended to assume that there is nothing special about our place in the cosmos. But apparently our planetary system might not be so normal after all. Is it just chance that makes Jupiter different from other extrasolar planets? Beer and his colleagues suspect not.

They suggest that other planets were not formed by the same kind of process that produced our Solar System, so they might not have smaller, habitable companions.

Different recipes

The planets in our Solar System were put together from small pieces. The cloud of gas and dust that surrounded our newly formed Sun agglomerated into little pebbles, which then collided and stuck together to form rocky boulders and eventually mini-planets, called planetesimals. The coalescence of planetesimals created rocky planets such as Earth and Mars, and the solid cores of giant planets such as Jupiter, which then attracted thick atmospheres of gas.

But that is not the only way to make a solar system. Giant planets can condense directly out of the gaseous material around stars, collapsing under their own gravity. This process, which generates giant planets with a wide range of orbital radii and eccentricities, does not seem capable of producing the rocky planets seen in our own Solar System, which is why it has generally been ignored.

Yet it might account very nicely for the known extrasolar planets. "It wouldn't surprise me if there are two different ways that planetary systems are formed," Beer says. But how can we know if that is the case? "Probably the best way is just to gather more observations," says Beer. Only then can we know how unusual we really are.


  1. Beer M. E., King A. R., Livio M. & Pringle J. E. Preprint, (2004).

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