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2014 Annual Science Report

NASA Ames Research Center Reporting  |  SEP 2013 – DEC 2014

Disks and the Origins of Planetary Systems

Project Summary

This task is concerned with the evolution of complex habitable environments. The planet formation process begins with fragmentation of large molecular clouds into flattened disks. This disk is in many ways an astrochemical “primeval soup” in which cosmically abundant elements are assembled into increasingly complex hydrocarbons and mixed in the dust and gas within the disk. Gravitational attraction among the myriad small bodies leads to planet formation. If the newly formed planet is a suitable distance from its star to support liquid water at the surface, it is in the so-called “habitable zone.” The formation process and identification of such life-supporting bodies is the goal of this project.

4 Institutions
3 Teams
1 Publication
0 Field Sites
Field Sites

Project Progress

Models of planet formation have shown that giant planets have a large impact on the number, masses, and orbits of terrestrial planets that form. In addition, they play an important role in delivering volatiles from material that formed exterior to the snow line (the region in the disk beyond which water ice can condense) to the inner region of the disk where terrestrial planets can maintain liquid water on their surfaces. We presented simulations of the late stages of terrestrial planet formation from a disk of protoplanets around a solar-type star and we included a massive planet (from 1 M⊕ to 1 MJ ) in Jupiter’s orbit at ∼ 5.2 AU in all but one set of simulations. We examined two initial disk models with the same mass distribution and total initial water content, but with different distributions of water content. We compared the accretion rates and final water mass fraction of the planets that form. Remarkably, all of the planets that formed in our simulations without giant planets were water-rich, showing that giant planet companions are not required to deliver volatiles to terrestrial planets in the habitable zone. In contrast, an outer planet at least several times the mass of Earth may be needed to clear distant regions of debris truncating the epoch of frequent large impacts. Observations of exoplanets from radial velocity surveys suggest that outer Jupiter-like planets may be scarce therefore our findings indicate that there might be more habitable planets residing in our galaxy than previously thought.

    Sanford Davis
    Project Investigator

    Uma Gorti

    David Hollenbach

    Gregory Laughlin

    Jack Lissauer

    Elisa Quintana

    Kevin Zahnle

    Objective 1.1
    Formation and evolution of habitable planets.

    Objective 1.2
    Indirect and direct astronomical observations of extrasolar habitable planets.

    Objective 2.2
    Outer Solar System exploration

    Objective 3.1
    Sources of prebiotic materials and catalysts

    Objective 4.1
    Earth's early biosphere.

    Objective 4.3
    Effects of extraterrestrial events upon the biosphere