A new study casts light on the way gas giant planets like Jupiter and Saturn formed from just a handful of pebbles blasting through space.
For years, scientists believed that gas giant planets like Jupiter and Saturn began forming around a solid core, but a new analysis has raised questions about this belief. According to a report from Space.com, giant gaseous planets are more likely to have begun forming around many pebble-sized rocks, gathering dust and pushing tiny planets out of the way as they grew.
There is little question as to how stars form, but planetary birth is still up for debate. Stars are created by slowly turning gas clouds that collapse inward and become more massive. As the rotation picks up, dust gets squished together to form pebbles, collecting more matter until it is the size of a sun.
A new simulation from astronomers at the Southwest Research Institute in Colorado has shown that gas giants may not be so different from stars after all. The large planets like Jupiter and Saturn consume all of the available materials and bump smaller planets out of their orbital paths.
According to Harold Levison, the study’s lead author, “This is the first model that we know about that you start out with a pretty simple structure for the solar nebula from which planets form, and end up with the giant-planet system that we see.”
The likelihood of a group of small pebbles getting packed together and forming a viable core for gas to surround is much higher than that of a planet forming around a larger, singular rock. Large clusters of rock fragments in infant solar systems attract smaller pebbles, which are quickly sucked up into the growing planet.
The new analysis confirms how the gas giants in our own solar system likely formed, but it will also help us understand how distant and foreign gas giants came to be.