Jupiter is the most massive planet of the solar system and its presence had an immense effect on the dynamics of the solar accretion disk (the disk of dust and stellar material which surrounded and formed the Sun). Knowing the age of Jupiter is key for understanding how the solar system evolved toward its present-day architecture. Although models predict that Jupiter formed relatively early in the solar system’s history, until now, its formation has never been dated. Now, an international study suggests it was the very first planet to form.
The team, comprising scientists from the US Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Germany’s Institut für Planetologie at the University of Münster, believe that Jupiter’s core started forming within the first million years of the solar system’s existence. By looking at tungsten and molybdenum isotopes on iron meteorites, the team found that meteorites are made up from two genetically distinct nebular reservoirs that coexisted but remained separated between 1 million and 3-4 million years after the solar system formed.
“The most plausible mechanism for this efficient separation is the formation of Jupiter, opening a gap in the accretion disk, preventing the exchange of material between the two reservoirs,” said Thomas Kruijer, lead author of team’s paper, published in the June 12th Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“We do not have any samples from Jupiter (in contrast to other bodies like the Earth, Mars, the moon and asteroids),” he continued, when discussing the paper. “In our study, we use isotope signatures of meteorites (which are derived from asteroids) to infer Jupiter’s age. Jupiter is the oldest planet of the solar system, and its solid core formed well before the solar nebula gas dissipated, consistent with the core accretion model for giant planet formation.”
The team showed through isotope analyses of meteorites that Jupiter’s solid core formed within only about 1 million years after the start of the solar system history, rapidly growing to a mass of around 20 times that of Earth, then expanding more gradually to around 50 Earth masses over the next 2-3 million years. This rapid formation meant Jupiter acted as a barrier against inward transport of material from the outer reservoir of nebula material to the inner one, potentially explaining why our solar system lacks any super-Earths (a solid planet with a mass and size greater than Earth’s) orbiting the sun – Jupiter effectively vacuumed up the material.
The common belief among planetary scientists has leaned towards the gas giants of the outer solar system having formed relatively early in the solar system’s history, before the complete dissipation of the solar nebula—the gaseous circumstellar disk surrounding the young Sun – which occurred around 10 million years after the solar system formed. These finding fully support that belief, but has been able to far more precisely pin-down Jupiter’s birth date.
“Our measurements show that the growth of Jupiter can be dated using the distinct genetic heritage and formation times of meteorites,” Kruijer said.
Chinese Resupply Vehicle Competes 2nd Lab Refuelling
China’s automated Tianzhou-1 re-supply vehicle has carried out a successful second rendezvous with the currently uncrewed Tiangong-2 space laboratory, and completed out a further refuelling operation of the orbital facility.
Launched in April 2017, Tianzhou-1 (“Heavenly Ship 1”) is the first of a series of resupply vehicles based on China’s first orbital module, Tiangong-1, designed to deliver up to 6.5 tonnes of equipment, supplies and fuel to orbital facilities – most notably China’s space station, construction of which is due to commence in 2018.
Tianzhou-1 is currently on an extended mission with the Tiangong-2 (“Heavenly Palace 2”) orbital facility, during which automated dockings at each of the laboratory’s two airlock systems are being practised, as is the transfer of fuel to the laboratory. The latter is a complicated, 29-step process, but one vital to the success of an orbital facility, where fuel is used in very small motor systems to help it maintain the correct orientation whilst in orbit and – potentially – help periodically boost the facility orbit to counter the microscopic (but cumulative) effect of atmospheric drag encountered whilst orbiting the Earth.
However, as such “boosts” to a space station’s orbit are more normally provided by an attached vehicle (the space shuttle used to do it for the International Space Station, for example, and the role has been taken over by the resupply craft which periodically visit the ISS). To this end, part of the Tianzhou-1 mission has also been to practice manoeuvring both the vehicle and Tiangong-2 when the two have been docked. In addition, Tianzhou-1 has been carrying out its own free flight mission when not docked with the laboratory.
Like the European Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), Japanese H-II Transfer Vehicle (HTV) and American Cygnus resupply craft used in support of ISS operations, Tianzhou-1 is not designed to return to Earth. Instead, the vehicle will be allowed to burn-up as it re-enters the denser part of the Earth’s atmosphere at the end of its mission.
Following the Tianzhou-1 mission, a further crew of Chinese tiakonauts is expected to visit Tiangong-2 laboratory.
Kepler’s Latest Findings
NASA will announce the latest crop of planet discoveries from the Kepler Space Telescope on Monday, June 19th.
Kepler has been hunting for extrasolar planets since its launch in 2009, although the programme was almost cut short in 2013, following the failure of two of the reaction wheels (essentially gyroscope systems) used to stabilise the platform and allow it to gather data.
However, in November 2013, a new mission for the platform, dubbed “Second Light” and more generally referred to as the K2 mission, was proposed and, after a successful period of test in early 2014, officially got under way on May 26th, 2014.
Most recently, Kepler has been using gravitational microlensing in an attempt to locate planets orbiting stars so far away, the dimming of the star’s light by a transiting planet cannot easily be detected.
Kepler was the first mission capable of seeing planets the size of Earth around other stars in the “habitable zone” — the region at a distance from a star where liquid water could exist without freezing or boiling away immediately.
Thus far Kepler has found 4,496 exoplanet candidates. Some 2,335 have been confirmed and 21 are Earth-size planets in the habitable zone. Further, 520 of these exoplanet candidates have been found during the K2 mission, with 148 confirmed as having planets.