Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Out of the Frying Pan

As the solar nebula contracted and flattened into its pancake-like shape, gravitational energy was released in the form of heat, increasing its temperature. Due to the inverse-square law of gravitational attraction, matter piled up mostly at the center of the collapsing cloud. The density of matter and the temperature were highest near the center of the system, closest to the protosun, and gradually dropped farther out into the disk.
At the very center of the nascent solar system, where heat and density were greatest, the solar mass coalesced. In this very hot region, the carefully assembled interstellar dust was pulled apart into its constituent atoms, while the dust in the outer regions of the disk remained intact. Once the gravitational collapse from a cloud to a disk was complete, the temperatures began to fall again, and new dust grains condensed out of the vaporized material toward the center of the solar system. This vaporization and recondensation process was an important step in the formation of the solar system, because it chemically differentiated the dust grains that would go on to form the planets. These grains originally had a uniform composition. In the regions nearest the protosun—where temperatures were highest—metallic grains formed, because metals survived the early heat. Moving farther out, silicates (rocky material), which could not survive intact close to the protosun, were condensed from the vapor. Farther out still, there were water ice grains, and, even farther, ammonia ice grains. What is fascinating to realize is that the heat of the protosun depleted the inner solar system (which is home to the earth) of water ice and organic carbon compounds. These molecules, as we will see, survived in the outer solar system and later rained onto the surfaces of the inner planets, making one of them habitable.
The composition of the surviving dust grains determined the type of planet that would form. Farthest from the sun, the most common substances in the preplanetary dust grains were water vapor, ammonia, and methane, in addition to the elements hydrogen, helium, carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen—which were distributed throughout the solar system. The jovian planets, therefore, formed around mostly icy material. And in the cooler temperatures farthest from the protosolar mass, greater amounts of material were able to condense, so the outer planets tended to be very massive. Their mass was such that, by gravitational force, they accreted hydrogen-rich nebular gases in addition to dust grains. Hydrogen and helium piled onto the outer planets, causing them to contract and heat up. Their central temperatures rose, but never high enough to trigger fusion, the process that produces a star’s enormous energy. Thus the jovian worlds are huge, but also gaseous.

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