This image of the nearby young star TW Hydrae reveals the classic rings and gaps that signify planets are being formed in this protoplanetary disk. {ESO, Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA)}

Before the first exoplanets were discovered in the 1990s,  our own solar system served as the model for what solar systems looked like.  The physical and chemical dynamics that formed our system were also seen as the default model for what might have occurred in solar systems yet to be found.

As the number of exoplanets identified ballooned via the Kepler Space Telescope and others, and  it became clear that exoplanets were everywhere and orbiting most every star, the model of our own solar system became obviously flawed.  The first exoplanet identified, after all, was a “hot Jupiter” orbiting very close to its star — a planetary placement previously thought to be impossible.

With the growing number of known exoplanets and their most unusual placements, the field of planet formation — focused earlier on understanding on how the planets of our system came into being and what they were made of — expanded to take in the completely re-arranged planetary and solar system menagerie being found.

This was basic science seeking to understand these newfound worlds, but it also became part of the fast-growing field of astrobiology, the search for planets that might be habitable like our own.

In this context, planet formation became associated with the effort to learn more about the dynamics that actually make a planet habitable — the needed composition of a planet, the nature of its Sun, its placement in a solar system and how exactly it was formed.

So the logic of planet formation became the subject of myriad efforts to understand what might happen when a star is born, surrounded by a ring of gas and dust that will in time include larger and larger collections of solids that can evolve into meteors, planetesimals and if all goes a particular way, into planets.

A thin section of primitive meteorite under a microscope. The various colors suggest different minerals that comprise meteorites. The round-shaped mineral aggregates are called chondrules, which are among the oldest known materials in our solar system. (Science)

As part of this very broad effort to understand better how planets form, meteorites have been widely used to learn about what the early solar system was like. Meteorites are from asteroids that formed within the first several million years of planetary accretion.… Read more