Nuno C. Santos, Susana C.C. Barros, Olivier D.S. Demangeon, and Jo˜ao P. Faria
Is the Solar System unique, or are planets ubiquitous in the universe? The answer to this long-standing question implies the understanding of planet formation, but perhaps more relevant, the observational assessment of the existence of other worlds and their frequency in the galaxy.
The detection of planets orbiting other suns has always been a challenging task. Fortunately, technological progress together with significant development in data reduction and analysis processes allowed astronomers to finally succeed. The methods used so far are mostly based on indirect approaches, able to detect the influence of the planets on the stellar motion (dynamical methods) or the planet’s shadow as it crosses the stellar disk (transit method). For a growing number of favorable cases, direct imaging has also been successful. The combination of different methods also allowed probing planet interiors, composition, temperature, atmospheres, and orbital architecture. Overall, one can confidently state that planets are common around solar-type stars, low mass planets being the most frequent among them.
Despite all the progress, the discovery and characterization of temperate Earth-like worlds, similar to the Earth in both mass and composition and thus potential islands of life in the universe, is still a challenging task. Their low amplitude signals are difficult to detect and are often submerged by the noise produced by different instrumentation sources and astrophysical processes. However, the dawn of a new generation of ground and space-based instruments and missions is promising a new era in this domain.
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.