Nature of the Investigation

The Nature of Planet Formation

The formation of stars and planets is complex, making it almost impossible to predict the diversity of planetary systems from first principles (Boss, 1995, Lissauer 1995). Most modern theories describe planetary growth beginning with small solid grains within circumstellar disks. Such disks are believed to form as part of the star formation process and are observed around many young stars. Dust collides and agglomerates into larger bodies, eventually producing planets. Sufficiently massive bodies which form while gas remains in the disk can accrete substantial amounts of hydrogen and helium to become gas giants, whereas smaller planets are primarily composed of condensed material. According to this scenario, planets are believed to be common and a broad range of planetary sizes and masses is produced, including rocky planets several times as massive as the Earth.

The characteristics of a particular planetary system depend upon the interaction of a vast array of physical and chemical processes, involving magnetic fields, turbulence and viscosity in disks composed of gas and dust, sticking and growth of small grains, torques between growing planets and their surrounding disk, etc. Theory cannot definitively predict the frequency of planet formation nor the distribution of planetary sizes and orbits. One theory predicts that Jovian mass planets are formed from dynamic instabilities in accretion disks. A more popular theory envisions the formation of terrestrial planets that grow large enough to attract a massive gaseous envelope. Large cores should be seen in the second case, but not the first.

Theory is most useful for extrapolating from known systems. Models based on the single example of our Solar System cannot say whether our system is typical or anomalous. The discovery of short-period giant planets using Doppler spectroscopy results implies that at least a few percent of solar-like stars have systems quite different from our own. However, such surveys will not be able to detect terrestrial planets.

The Kepler Mission uses spacebased photometry to detect planetary transits. It offers far greater sensitivity for finding terrestrial and larger planets than ground-based techniques. By providing a statistically robust census of the sizes and orbital periods of terrestrial and larger planets orbiting a wide variety of stellar types, results from this mission will allow us to place our Solar System within the continuum of planetary systems in the Galaxy and develop theories based on empirical data.

Where to Look For Habitable Planets

The numerical modeling of Wetherill (1991) shows that the accumulation of planetesimals during molecular cloud collapse can be expected to produce, on the average, four inner planets. Two of these are approximately Earth-size and two are smaller. These results indicate that the position of the terrestrial planets can be anywhere from the position of Mercury's orbit to that of Mars'. Therefore, a search for terrestrial planets should include a wide range of orbits.

The Terrestrial Accretion Zone and The Habitable Zone for Various Stellar Types

The continuously habitable zone is bounded by the range of distances from a star for which liquid water would exist and by the range of stellar spectral types for which planets had enough time to form and complex life had enough time to evolve (less massive than F) and for which stellar flares and atmospheric condensation due to tidal locking do not occur (more massive than M). The figure shows the continuously habitable zone as calculated by Kasting, Whitmire, and Reynolds, (1993) for main-sequence stars as a function of spectral type.

The Kepler Mission performs an unbiased search for all orbital periods less than two years, that is, out to a Martian orbit, and for all spectral types of stars. It is not affected by solar or extrasolar zodiacal background and can detect planets within binary star systems.

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