Models in science are wonderful things. They are like video games to some astronomers – lots of fun, and everything works out. That doesn’t mean the war tactics on the screen will work on a battlefield. The models astronomers have trusted to explain planetary evolution have clashed with new observations of extrasolar planets so hard, the failures are raising serious questions about what they think they understand.
“Super-Earths give theorists a super headache” is the title of an article by Eric Hand on Nature News. The Kepler spacecraft has now counted 2,326 candidate planets, many of which should not exist. Planets of “super Earth” size orbiting close to their parent stars defy theory, but are numerous – so much so, in fact, that they constitute a major new category of planet.
But what has puzzled observers and theorists so far is the high proportion of planets — roughly one-third to one-half — that are bigger than Earth but smaller than Neptune. These ‘super-Earths’ are emerging as a new category of planet — and they could be the most numerous of all ….Their very existence upsets conventional models of planetary formationand, furthermore, most of them are in tight orbits around their host star, precisely where the modellers say they shouldn’t be.
Modelers can’t just tweak the parameters, one said. It requires understanding the physics. Another described the zone where these planets orbit as a tropical rainforest, when a desert was predicted. Current theory cannot explain what is being observed – not their formation, not their location. Greg Laughlin [UC Santa Cruz] sees this as the tip of an iceberg:
“They’ll scramble to fix the models,” he says. But it’s probably not the last time they’ll have to revisit their codes, he adds. “My prediction is that they’ll completely miss the next big thing, whatever that will be.”
That sounds like damage control in advance. It came a day before a highly-publicized announcement that Kepler found two roughly Earth-sized planets around other stars (see PhysOrg, BBC News). Trouble is, those planets are way too close to their parent stars, utterly devoid of life because of the scorching heat. Even if the discovery brings astronomers closer to the “holy grail” of finding an Earth-size planet within a habitable zone, the other Kepler statistics undermine their ability to understand planet formation in the first place. A top-down, design theory could account for the observations without the problems resulting from bottom-up assumptions….
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