Mysterious Origins of “Super-Earths” Uncovered by Astronomers

This artist’s impression shows the planet orbiting the Sun-like star HD 85512 in the southern constellation of Vela (The Sail). This planet is one of 16 super-Earths discovered by the HARPS instrument on the 3.6-meter telescope at ESO’s La Silla Observatory. This planet is about 3.6 times as massive as the Earth and lies at the edge of the habitable zone around the star, where liquid water, and perhaps even life, could potentially exist.
Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Study shows super-Earths are not leftovers of mini-Neptunes, challenging our understanding of planetary formation.

Mini-Neptunes and super-Earths up to four times the size of our own are the most common exoplanets orbiting stars beyond our solar system. Until now, super-Earths were thought to be the rocky cores of mini-Neptunes whose gassy atmospheres were blown away. In a new study published in The Astrophysical Journal, astronomers from McGill University show that some of these exoplanets never had gaseous atmospheres to begin with, shedding new light on their mysterious origins.

From observations, we know about 30 to 50 percent of host stars have super-Earths or mini-Neptunes, and the two populations appear in about equal proportion. But where did they come from?

One theory is that most exoplanets are born as mini-Neptunes but some are stripped of their gas shells by radiation from host stars, leaving behind only a dense, rocky core. This theory predicts that our Galaxy has very few Earth-sized and smaller exoplanets known as Earths and mini-Earths. However, recent observations show this may not be the case.

To find out more, the astronomers used a simulation to track the evolution of these mysterious exoplanets. The model used thermodynamic calculations based on how massive their rocky cores are, how far they are from their host stars, and how hot the surrounding gas is.

“Contrary to previous theories, our study shows that some exoplanets can never build gaseous atmospheres to begin with,” says co-author Eve Lee, Assistant Professor in the Department of Physics at McGill University and the McGill Space Institute.

The findings suggest that not all super-Earths are remnants of mini-Neptunes. Rather, the exoplanets were formed by a single distribution of rocks, born in a spinning disk of gas and dust around host stars. “Some of the rocks grew gas shells, while others emerged and remained rocky super-Earths,” she says.

How mini-Neptunes and super-Earths are born

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