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Article

Alan E. Rubin and Chi Ma

Meteorites are rocks from outer space that reach the Earth; more than 60,000 have been collected. They are derived mainly from asteroids; a few hundred each are from the Moon and Mars; some micrometeorites derive from comets. By mid 2020, about 470 minerals had been identified in meteorites. In addition to having characteristic petrologic and geochemical properties, each meteorite group has a distinctive set of pre-terrestrial minerals that reflect the myriad processes that the meteorites and their components experienced. These processes include condensation in gaseous envelopes around evolved stars, crystallization in chondrule melts, crystallization in metallic cores, parent-body aqueous alteration, and shock metamorphism. Chondrites are the most abundant meteorites; the major components within them include chondrules, refractory inclusions, opaque assemblages, and fine-grained silicate-rich matrix material. The least-metamorphosed chondrites preserve minerals inherited from the solar nebula such as olivine, enstatite, metallic Fe-Ni, and refractory phases. Other minerals in chondrites formed on their parent asteroids during thermal metamorphism (such as chromite, plagioclase and phosphate), aqueous alteration (such as magnetite and phyllosilicates) and shock metamorphism (such as ringwoodite and majorite). Differentiated meteorites contain minerals formed by crystallization from magmas; these phases include olivine, orthopyroxene, Ca-plagioclase, Ca-pyroxene, metallic Fe-Ni and sulfide. Meteorites also contain minerals formed during passage through the Earth’s atmosphere and via terrestrial weathering after reaching the surface. Whereas some minerals form only by a single process (e.g., by high-pressure shock metamorphism or terrestrial weathering of a primary phase), other meteoritic minerals can form by several different processes, including condensation, crystallization from melts, thermal metamorphism, and aqueous alteration.

Article

Frédéric S. Masset

Planet migration is the variation over time of a planet’s semimajor axis, leading to either a contraction or an expansion of the orbit. It results from the exchange of energy and angular momentum between the planet and the disk in which it is embedded during its formation and can cause the semimajor axis to change by as much as two orders of magnitude over the disk’s lifetime. The migration of forming protoplanets is an unavoidable process, and it is thought to be a key ingredient for understanding the variety of extrasolar planetary systems. Although migration occurs for protoplanets of all masses, its properties for low-mass planets (those having up to a few Earth masses) differ significantly from those for high-mass planets. The torque that is exerted by the disk on the planet is composed of different contributions. While migration was first thought to be invariably inward, physical processes that are able to halt or even reverse migration were later uncovered, leading to the realization that the migration path of a forming planet has a very sensitive dependence on the underlying disk parameters. There are other processes that go beyond the case of a single planet experiencing smooth migration under the disk’s tide. This is the case of planetary migration in low-viscosity disks, a fashionable research avenue because protoplanetary disks are thought to have very low viscosity, if any, over most of their planet-forming regions. Such a process is generally significantly chaotic and has to be tackled through high-resolution numerical simulations. The migration of several low-mass planets is also is a very fashionable topic, owing to the discovery by the Kepler mission of many multiple extrasolar planetary systems. The orbital properties of these systems suggest that at least some of them have experienced substantial migration. Although there have been many studies to account for the orbital properties of these systems, there is as yet no clear picture of the different processes that shaped them. Finally, some recently unveiled processes could be important for the migration of low-mass planets. One process is aero-resonant migration, in which a swarm of planetesimals subjected to aerodynamic drag push a planet inward when they reach a mean-motion resonance with the planet, while another process is based on so-called thermal torques, which arise when thermal diffusion in the disk is taken into account, or when the planet, heated by accretion, releases heat into the ambient gas.

Article

Larry W. Esposito

Saturn’s rings are not only a beautiful and enduring symbol of space, but astronomers’ best local laboratory for studying phenomena in thin cosmic disks like those where planets formed. All the giant planets have ring systems. Saturn’s are the biggest and brightest. Saturn’s rings are made of innumerable icy particles, ranging from the size of dust to that of football stadiums. Galileo discovered Saturn’s rings with his newly invented telescope, but they were not explained until Huygens described them as thin, flat disks surrounding the planet. In the space age, rings were found around the other giant planets in our solar system. Rings have been seen around asteroids and likely exist around exoplanets. Many of the ring structures seen are created by gravity from Saturn’s moons. Rings show both ongoing aggregation and disaggregation. After decades of study from space and by theoretical analysis, some puzzles still remain unexplained. There is evidence for youthful rings from Cassini results, but no good theory to explain their recent origin. A future Saturn Ring Observer mission would be able to determine the direct connections between the individual ring physical properties and the origin and evolution of larger structures.

Article

The formation and evolution of our solar system (and planetary systems around other stars) are among the most challenging and intriguing fields of modern science. As the product of a long history of cosmic matter evolution, this important branch of astrophysics is referred to as stellar-planetary cosmogony. Interdisciplinary by way of its content, it is based on fundamental theoretical concepts and available observational data on the processes of star formation. Modern observational data on stellar evolution, disc formation, and the discovery of extrasolar planets, as well as mechanical and cosmochemical properties of the solar system, place important constraints on the different scenarios developed, each supporting the basic cosmogony concept (as rooted in the Kant-Laplace hypothesis). Basically, the sequence of events includes fragmentation of an original interstellar molecular cloud, emergence of a primordial nebula, and accretion of a protoplanetary gas-dust disk around a parent star, followed by disk instability and break-up into primary solid bodies (planetesimals) and their collisional interactions, eventually forming a planet. Recent decades have seen major advances in the field, due to in-depth theoretical and experimental studies. Such advances have clarified a new scenario, which largely supports simultaneous stellar-planetary formation. Here, the collapse of a protosolar nebula’s inner core gives rise to fusion ignition and star birth with an accretion disc left behind: its continuing evolution resulting ultimately in protoplanets and planetary formation. Astronomical observations have allowed us to resolve in great detail the turbulent structure of gas-dust disks and their dynamics in regard to solar system origin. Indeed radio isotope dating of chondrite meteorite samples has charted the age and the chronology of key processes in the formation of the solar system. Significant progress also has been made in the theoretical study and computer modeling of protoplanetary accretion disk thermal regimes; evaporation/condensation of primordial particles depending on their radial distance, mechanisms of clustering, collisions, and dynamics. However, these breakthroughs are yet insufficient to resolve many problems intrinsically related to planetary cosmogony. Significant new questions also have been posed, which require answers. Of great importance are questions on how contemporary natural conditions appeared on solar system planets: specifically, why the three neighbor inner planets—Earth, Venus, and Mars—reveal different evolutionary paths.

Article

Hundreds of planets are already known to have orbits only a few times wider than the stars that host them. The tidal interaction between a planet and its host star is one of the main agents shaping the observed distributions of properties of these systems. Tidal dissipation in the planet tends make the orbit circular, as well as synchronizing and aligning the planet’s spin with the orbit, and can significantly heat the planet, potentially affecting its size and structure. Dissipation in the star typically leads to inward orbital migration of the planet, accelerating the star’s rotation, and in some cases destroying the planet. Some essential features of tidal evolution can be understood from the basic principles that angular momentum and energy are exchanged between spin and orbit by means of a gravitational field and that energy is dissipated. For example, most short-period exoplanetary systems have too little angular momentum to reach a tidal equilibrium state. Theoretical studies aim to explain tidal dissipation quantitatively by solving the equations of fluid and solid mechanics in stars and planets undergoing periodic tidal forcing. The equilibrium tide is a nearly hydrostatic bulge that is carried around the body by a large-scale flow, which can be damped by convection or hydrodynamic instability, or by viscoelastic dissipation in solid regions of planets. The dynamical tide is an additional component that generally takes the form of internal waves restored by Coriolis and buoyancy forces in a rotating and stratified fluid body. It can lead to significant dissipation if the waves are amplified by resonance, are efficiently damped when they attain a very short wavelength, or break because they exceed a critical amplitude. Thermal tides are excited in a planetary atmosphere by the variable heating by the star’s radiation. They can oppose gravitational tides and prevent tidal locking, with consequences for the climate and habitability of the planet. Ongoing observations of transiting exoplanets provide information on the orbital periods and eccentricities as well as the obliquity (spin–orbit misalignment) of the star and the size of the planet. These data reveal several tidal processes at work and provide constraints on the efficiency of tidal dissipation in a variety of stars and planets.

Article

Bryan J. Holler

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) officially recognizes five objects as dwarf planets: Ceres in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and Pluto, Eris, Haumea, and Makemake in the trans-Neptunian region beyond the orbit of Neptune. However, the definition used by the IAU applies to many other trans-Neptunian objects (TNOs) and can be summarized as follows: Any non-satellite large enough to be rounded by its own gravity. Practically speaking, this means any non-satellite with a diameter larger than 400 km. In the trans-Neptunian region, there are more than 150 objects that satisfy this definition, based on published results and diameter estimates. The dynamical structure of the trans-Neptunian region records the history of the migration of the giant planets in the early days of the solar system. The semi-major axes, eccentricities, and orbital inclinations of TNOs across various dynamical classes provide constraints on different aspects of planetary migration. For many TNOs, the orbital parameters are all that is known about them, due to their large distances, small sizes, and low albedos. The TNO dwarf planets are a different story. These objects are large enough to be studied in more detail from ground- and space-based observatories. Imaging observations can be used to detect satellites and measure surface colors, while spectroscopy can be used to constrain surface composition. In this way, TNO dwarf planets not only help provide context for the dynamical evolution of the outer solar system, but also reveal the composition of the primordial solar nebula as well as the physical and chemical processes at work at very cold temperatures. The largest TNO dwarf planets, those officially recognized by the IAU, plus others like Sedna, Quaoar, and Gonggong, are large enough to support volatile ices on their surfaces in the present day. These ices are able to exist as solids and gases on some TNOs, due to their sizes and surface temperatures (similar to water on Earth) and include N2 (nitrogen), CH4 (methane), and CO (carbon monoxide). A global atmosphere composed of these three species has been detected around Pluto, the largest TNO dwarf planet, with the possibility of local atmospheres or global atmospheres at perihelion for Eris and Makemake. The presence of non-volatile species, such as H2O (water), NH3 (ammonia), and complex hydrocarbons, provides valuable information on objects that may be too small to retain volatile ices over the age of the solar system. In particular, large quantities of H2O mixed with NH3 point to ancient cryovolcanism caused by internal differentiation of ice from rock. Complex hydrocarbons, formed through radiation processing of surface ices, such as CH4, record the radiation histories of these objects and provide clues to their primordial surface compositions. The dynamical, physical, and chemical diversity of the more than 150 TNO dwarf planets are key to understanding the formation of the solar system and its subsequent evolution to its current state. Most of our knowledge comes from a small handful of objects, but we are continually expanding our horizons as additional objects are studied in more detail.