NASA’s Kepler space telescope and other instruments have revealed the existence of thousands of alien planets. Most of them are “super-Earths” rocky worlds with Earth- to Neptune-size masses.
But the existence of so many super-Earths seems to contradict astronomers’ understanding of planet formation. Indeed, observations of newborn solar systems show features that seem to need the presence of more massive gas giants like Jupiter.
Scientists may have just solved that mystery, or at least part of it. University of Arizona postdoctoral researcher Ruobing Dong and his colleagues propose that super-Earths can carve out multiple gaps in the disks of gas and dust that surround young stars. [Gallery: The Strangest Alien Planets]
Young stars form with clouds of gas and dust around them, which, as the star spins, eventually coalesce into a disk. As tiny dust grains in this disk collide, they form larger bodies, and those bodies attract more gas and dust in turn. Eventually, some accrete enough mass to form protoplanets.
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