What can get the imagination into super-drive more quickly than the crashing of really huge objects?
Like when a Mars-sized planet did a head-on into the Earth and, the scientific consensus says, created the moon. Or when a potentially dinosaur-exterminating asteroid heads towards Earth, or when what are now called “near-Earth objects” seems to be on a collision course. (There actually aren’t any now, as far as I can tell from reports.)
But for scientists, collisions across the galaxies are not so much a doomsday waiting to happen, but rather an essential commonplace and a significant and growing field of study.
The planet-forming centrality of collisions — those every-day crashes of objects from grain-sized to planet-sized within protoplanetary disks — has been understood for some time; that’s how rocky planets come to be. In today’s era of exoplanets, however, they have taken on new importance: as an avenue into understanding other solar systems, to understanding the composition and atmospheres of exoplanets, and to get some insight into their potential habitability.
And collision models, it now seems likely, can play a not insignificant role in future decision-making about which planetary systems will get a long look from the high-demand, high-cost space telescopes that will launch and begin observing in the years ahead.
“We’re learning that these impacts have a lot of implications for habitability,” said Elisa Quintana, a NASA Ames Research Center and SETI Institute research scientist who has been modeling space collisions. Her paper was published in 2016 in the Astrophysical Journal, and took the modeling into new realms.
“When you think of what we know about impacts in general, we know they can effect a planet’s spin rate and rotation and consequently its weather, they can bring water and gases to a planet or they can destroy an atmosphere and let the volatiles escape. They effect the relationship between the planet’s core and mantle, and they determine the compositions of the planets. These are all factors in increasing or decreasing a planet’s potential for habitability.”
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