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Condensation Calculations in Planetary Science and Cosmochemistry  

Denton S. Ebel

The Sun’s chemical and isotopic composition records the composition of the solar nebula from which the planets formed. If a piece of the Sun is cooled to 1,000 K at 1 mbar total pressure, a mineral assemblage is produced that is consistent with the minerals found in the least equilibrated (most chemically heterogeneous), oldest, and compositionally Sunlike (chondritic), hence most “primitive,” meteorites. This is an equilibrium or fractional condensation experiment. The result can be simulated by calculations using equations of state for hundreds of gaseous molecules, condensed mineral solids, and silicate liquids, the products of a century of experimental measurements and recent theoretical studies. Such calculations have revolutionized our understanding of the chemistry of the cosmos. The mid-20th century realization that meteorites are fossil records of the early solar system made chemistry central to understanding the origin of the Earth, Moon, and other bodies. Thus “condensation,” more generally the distribution of elements and isotopes between vapor and condensed solids and/or liquids at or approaching chemical equilibrium, came to deeply inform discussion of how meteoritic and cometary compositions bear on the origins of atmospheres and oceans and the differences in composition among the planets. This expansion of thinking has had profound effects upon our thinking about the origin and evolution of Earth and the other worlds of our solar system. Condensation calculations have also been more broadly applied to protoplanetary disks around young stars, to the mineral “rain” of mineral grains expected to form in cool dwarf star atmospheres, to the expanding circumstellar envelopes of giant stars, to the vapor plumes expected to form in giant planetary impacts, and to the chemically and isotopically distinct “shells” computed and observed to exist in supernovae. The beauty of equilibrium condensation calculations is that the distribution of elements between gaseous molecules, solids, and liquids is fixed by temperature, total pressure, and the overall elemental composition of the system. As with all sophisticated calculations, there are inherent caveats, subtleties, and computational difficulties. In particular, local equilibrium chemistry has yet to be consistently integrated into gridded, dynamical astrophysical simulations so that effects like the blocking of light and heat by grains (opacity), absorption and re-emission of light by grains (radiative transfer), and buffering of heat by grain evaporation/condensation are fed back into the physics at each node or instance of a gridded calculation over time. A deeper integration of thermochemical computations of chemistry with physical models makes the prospect of a general protoplanetary disk model as hopeful in the 2020s as a general circulation model for global climate may have been in the early 1970s.