How old are the first planets?

Aug 31, 2012 by Keith Cooper
How old are the first planets?
Heavy elements - ‘metals' in astronomer-speak - are created within stars and then spewed out across the cosmos by supernovae. Scientists are now asking: when did the Universe have enough metals to start building planets?

To build a planet you need lots of rubble and that means lots of heavy elements – stuff more massive than atoms of hydrogen and helium. The elemental composition of the collapsing nebula that gave birth to the Sun and the planets of the Solar System included things like iron, silicon and magnesium that form the bulk of rocky planets, and carbon, oxygen, nitrogen, potassium and other such elements that are essential for life.

However, these materials were present in just trace quantities, amounting to no more than two percent of the entire that was otherwise dominated by hydrogen (74 percent) and (24 percent). Yet this gaseous cloud was huge; it is estimated that it harbored enough heavy elements to build at least thirty planets like Earth.

These heavy elements – 'metals' in -speak – don't just materialize out of nothing. They are the products of within stars, subsequently spewed out across the cosmos on the blast waves of , lacing the with the raw ingredients for planets. To build up enough of these materials, many stars must first live and die, each one contributing to the evolving chemistry of the Universe, but how much material is really required to build a planet and how quickly did the Universe accrue a sufficient level to do so?

Heavy Metal Planets

Earth was born out of the debris of a protoplanetary disc around a nascent Sun 4.54 billion years ago – a serious chunk of time in anybody's book. Yet the Universe is 13.7 billion years old – the Solar System has been around for just the last third of . Is it possible that rocky planets could have formed around other stars much earlier? Are we the new kids on the block by comparison?

Until recently, we didn't think so. The prevailing wisdom had been that the magic of stellar alchemy didn't produce enough useful "star-stuff" to build terrestrial worlds until at least six or seven billion years after the . Initial studies of exoplanets backed this up, finding worlds around stars with a "metallicity" (i.e. a heavy element abundance) equal to or greater than our Sun. However, it turns out that the biases that affected our early planet hunting also skewed our understanding of the types of stars that could form planets. Until 2009 and the launch of NASA's Kepler mission, the vast majority of exoplanets known to exist were close to their stars, simply because these were the easiest to detect. These planets seemed to prefer higher metallicity stars.

Kepler, however, has changed the way we view exoplanets. Simply by observing so many all at once in its field-of-view, the space telescope is taking an unprecedented census of alien worlds. It has found 2,321 candidate planets to date, over a third of which are smaller, rocky planets (Jupiter-sized gas giants or larger make up just 11 percent, with the rest being Neptune-sized worlds of indeterminate nature), whereas before Kepler you could count the number of rocky exoplanets discovered on one hand. Follow-up studies of their host stars have since revealed a surprising discovery.

"We found that the existence of small planets does not depend as strongly on the metallicity of their star as is the case for the larger planets," says Lars Buchhave of the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen. Buchhave is lead author of a new study involving a multinational group of astronomers investigating the spectra of 150 stars that play host to 226 candidate planets found by Kepler. Their research was initially presented at the 220th meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Anchorage, Alaska this June, followed by a paper in Nature.

"At first glance it appears very counter-intuitive that gas giants should be the ones caring about metallicity and terrestrial planets less so," says Anders Johansen of Lund Observatory in Sweden, who was a co-author on the Buchhave paper. Only when you stop to consider how planets are constructed does it begin to make sense. The process of accreting hierarchically from smaller building blocks is termed core accretion, but there has been something of a debate surrounding gas giants like Jupiter. Can they condense straight out of the gas of the solar nebula like a star, or do they need a large seed around which to grow by rapidly gathering gas from the protoplanetary disc in a runaway process?

Findings that show rocky planets existing around stars irrespective of their heavy element abundances mean that larger areas of galaxies than thought could be potentially habitable. Image: NASA/ESA/Hubble Heritage Team (STScI)

The preference of gas giants for higher metallicity stars indicates that they formed through core accretion, building up a central rocky core ten times the mass of Earth that could dominate the protoplanetary disc and sweep up much of the gas before it dissipates after around ten million years. In lower metallicity systems there would not be enough heavy elements to build up large cores, leaving only small rocky worlds. As such, Johansen suggests that one way of looking at terrestrial planets is to see them as failed gas giant cores.

Limits to Life

Planetary systems around stars possessing a deficiency in heavy elements might prove to be attractive locales to search for life because, without the presence of gas giants, life might have an easier time of it. Most of the extra-solar gas giants that we have discovered are so-called 'hot Jupiters' located very close to their stars and completing an orbit in just a few days. These planets were not born this close, instead they migrated in-system from their birth orbits. Johansen says that more and more astronomers are coming around to the idea that such migration is forced by the gravitational pull and dynamical friction of the gas, or by close encounters with other planets. These interactions with fellow constituents of the protoplanetary disc removed angular momentum from the planets, often causing them to spiral towards their stars. Any smaller planets unfortunate to be in their way are thrown out of the system by the marauding gas giant.

"If a Jupiter-type planet migrates and in the process scatters all the smaller planets away, one should probably look for terrestrial planets elsewhere," says Buchhave. Life may have had a more pleasant ride in the early Universe when, thanks to the lower metallicity, there were no gas giants – and the argument that Jupiter-sized planets are needed as a shield against comet impactors no longer holds water either. Life can do without gas giant planets.

If Earth-sized planets do not require stars with high abundances of heavy elements, then that has huge implications, expanding the possible abodes for life throughout both space and time. Consider: galaxies tend to evolve chemically from the inside out, with the highest abundances of heavy elements closer to the galactic center than in the outskirts of the spiral arms. Under the previous paradigm, the outer regions of the spiral arms were effectively the badlands, incapable of building planets or life. Yet when metallicity is no longer such a big issue, the galactic habitable zone – a region where environmental conditions including the metallicity and the rate of supernovae conspire to make habitable planets possible – suddenly widens to encompass much wider swathes of a galaxy.

An artist’s impression of the rocky planet Kepler 20e. It exists in a system with one other terrestrial world and three Saturn-sized gas giants. Image Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL–Caltech

Now consider that the abundance of heavy elements in the Universe has grown over history. In the past the average metallicity would be quite a bit less. Again, under the previous paradigm this had been assumed to preclude rocky planet formation early in the Universe, but now we know that such planets could have been constructed in environments that contained much poorer levels of heavy elements. This means that planets that could potentially have supported life may have formed eight, ten, maybe even twelve billion years ago.

Surveys do detect a decrease in the number of planet-hosting stars with decreasing metallicity, but this drop is much shallower for terrestrial planets than it is for gas giants. Of course, the presence of some heavy elements during the planet-building phases is required, but the minimum level has not yet been determined.

"I expect there will be a lower limit," says Johansen. "Simply because below a threshold metallicity there is not enough building material to form Earth-mass planets." Clearly, a heavy element abundance a tenth of the Sun's or less would struggle to build any planets. However, each galaxy evolves differently and there is no way to say for sure when the Milky Way crossed this threshold, although it is likely to have been early in the history of the Universe, for the young cosmos was particularly adept at producing multiple generations of stars in quick succession. Star-formation rates of 4,000 solar masses per year have been measured less than a billion years after the Big Bang, compared to the paltry ten solar masses of gas converted into stars each year in the Milky Way.

"A typical massive star that exploded and released heavy elements 10 to 12 billion years ago had a metallicity of about a tenth of the Sun," adds Johan Fynbo, Professor of Cosmology at the Niels Bohr Institute. "But whenever you have a new generation of stars then you start enriching the interstellar gas with heavy elements."

The Fermi Paradox

So, around more stars, across greater expanses of the Milky Way and going back deeper in time than we had ever dreamt adds more fuel to the fire of the Fermi Paradox. First voiced by the brilliant nuclear physicist Enrico Fermi in 1950, the Fermi Paradox questions why, given all the stars and planets out there coupled with the huge age of the Universe, have no alien civilizations encountered Earth yet? Where are they all?

The problem is made even worse when you consider that the first term in the Drake Equation – Frank Drake's method for estimating the number of intelligent civilizations in the Galaxy – is the star formation rate, which on average was much higher in the Universe 10 to 13 billion years ago when it seems planets could first begin forming. In the Milky Way today the average annual star formation rate is ten solar masses; an order of ten or one hundred greater has the effect of bumping up the product of the equation: the estimated number of civilizations.

One of the favorite counter-arguments to the Fermi Paradox was that the threshold metallicity takes time to build up, resulting in the Sun being one of the first stars at the required level and hence Earth would be one of the first planets with life. Now we see that planets and possibly life could have arisen at practically any point in cosmic history, undermining this counter-argument and once again forcing us to ask, where is everybody? If life did first appear on worlds 12 to13 billion years ago, then intelligent civilizations (if indeed they survived all this time) would now billions of years ahead of us and their concerns may no longer include the happenings on a damp mudball somewhere in the galactic hinterlands. Perhaps civilizations that are many billions of years old instead spend their time siphoning energy from black holes or living inside Dyson Spheres.

An artist’s impression of the rocky planet Kepler 20e. It exists in a system with one other terrestrial world and three Saturn-sized gas giants. Image Credit: NASA/Ames/JPL–Caltech

There are, however, some twists in the tale. In 2010 researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany, found a gas giant planet around a star so lacking in heavy elements that it must have formed very early in the history of the Universe. To add to the intrigue, the star, known as HIP 13044 and located 2,000 light years away, is part of a stellar stream that is all that remains of a dwarf galaxy that has been cannibalized by the Milky Way. This year, the same researchers found another low metallicity star with two gas giants. Based on its abundance of hydrogen and helium the star, known as HIP 11952, was born 12.8 billion years ago, a mere 900 million years after the Big Bang. Why gas giants have been able to form around these heavy-metal deficient stars is unknown, perhaps hinting at an alternative process for gas planet formation.

On the other hand new results suggest that, in some regions of the Universe at least, gas giants have been able to form all along.

Elemental Abundance

For some faint galaxies in the distant Universe, whose light is too feeble to allow a measurement of their spectra, it is possible to cheat by making use of natural backlights such as highly luminous quasars to probe faint foreground galaxies. When taking advantage of this method to study the chemical composition of a galaxy that existed 12 billion years ago, a team of astronomers including Johan Fynbo made a rather surprising revelation.

"We looked at a background quasar whose light was passing through a galaxy in front of it, where the light of the quasar was absorbed," says Fynbo. "This allowed us to see the absorption lines from oxygen, sulphur, carbon and all the elements that have been synthesized in the galaxy."

Twelve billion years ago the chemistry of galaxies should have been fairly primitive, yet in this one particular galaxy Fynbo and his colleagues, who reported on their findings in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, found abundances of heavy elements equivalent to the abundance in the Sun. Such finds at high distances are not unusual in themselves, but they tend to occur within the hearts of quasars, across a very small area of a galaxy. In this instance, however, the quasar light was shining through the disc of the foreground galaxy revealing the solar levels of heavy elements 52,000 light years from the center, right in the outskirts. Even today our own Milky Way isn't so heavily chemically processed to the edge of its spiral arms, so how did this distant galaxy become so enriched throughout its full extent so quickly?

The best explanation so far is that a starburst – a ferociously rapid bout of star formation – within the inner regions of the galaxy has blown the into the galactic outlands. This can be done simply though the gale force stellar winds of radiation emanating from hot, massive stars, or riding on the shock waves of supernovae. Furthermore, the quasar light was reddened by intervening dust in the galaxy. Dust is the most basic building block of planet formation, coming together in conglomerations and clumps that build up into protoplanets. Dust is also a product of the violent bombardment phase endured by young planetary systems and is copiously manufactured in supernovae.

"In order to make planets you clearly need metals and that seems to be possible quite far out in a galaxy at a very early time, which is what surprised us," says Fynbo. However, such high metallicities enables gas giant planets to also form but, although Lars Buchhave has mentioned what difficulties gas giants can cause for habitable planets, they don't necessarily have to be a show-stopper and our Solar System with Jupiter and Saturn is not the only exception.

"In the Kepler-20 planetary system there are five planets," he says, "Three are Saturn-sized planets and two are terrestrial-sized, with the order being big–small–big–small–big. If the Saturn-mass planets migrated in, how can the small planets be in-between the larger ones?'

Regardless, one thing is becoming clear: that sufficient raw materials for building terrestrial were available very soon after the Big Bang, raising the possibility that there could be life in the Universe far older than we. Perhaps they reside around long-lived red dwarf stars, or have moved on from their home system after their star expired. Or, perhaps, we really are the first, which means that if life has happened just once throughout the entire history of the Universe, our existence must be a fluke and our planet very, very special indeed.

Explore further: Image: NGC 6872 in the constellation of Pavo

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not rated yet Aug 31, 2012
Or, perhaps, we really are the first, which means that if life has happened just once throughout the entire history of the Universe, our existence must be a fluke and our planet very, very special indeed.
Wow! Nice article, except for the last sentence -- this is 2012 and not 1960.

The author seems to take it for granted that ever since a civilization is born, it never dies.

Let's say they miraculously avoid every single famine, pandemic, nuclear holocaust, super-weapon war, or simply getting bored to death, they are still unlikely to last even a single billion years. And then there are the external threats, like super volcano blasts, major meteorites, or massive climate change.

The Earth has seen a half dozen major extinctions per billion years. Only in science fiction are these survivable by a civilization.
1 / 5 (1) Aug 31, 2012
Why advanced civilizations would be interested on us? We are now interested in finding the first other planets with live, of any kind. But once we found a lot of them we will only be interested on similarly advanced civiilizations to us or more advanced. In the past we where interested in those tribes we discovered in amazonas because it was a new world for our explorers, but not anymore, I think we would not expend a single dollar to contact new ones or to study them.
5 / 5 (6) Aug 31, 2012
But we would javjav...

We humans would not care if the first life we encountered was microbial or just figuring out fire... we would give them the wheel and make nice so that we could have someone else to talk to. We would explore there world and show them their world.

The issue is if we find a civ with a similar technology level as us or greater. It might be harder for us to open up and share with them. If they are noticeably greater in technology we would be the begging child asking for low hanging fruit. Please sir can I see your antimatter manufacturing facility... pretty please.
not rated yet Aug 31, 2012
It is nice to see comprehensible articles that sums up the new astrobiological constraints and runs with it. But already Corot gave these results, IIRC.

Nice touch to notice that models seems to show Jupiter, or similar giants, actually _increases_ the impact rates on the inner system (IIRC). And IBEX has shown that the Sun, earlier believed to be high metallicity, is more like the MW average.

All other presumed unique factors with Earth have already been shown to be not so or irrelevant (say, Moon stabilization) or even damaging. Hence passes the Rare Earth and (mostly) the Galactic Habitable Zone to history.
3.5 / 5 (2) Aug 31, 2012
[cont] The Fermi Question is however neither a paradox or a sound constraint. Economics of long distances implies that the major pathway for colonization will remain settlement jumping, using the local resources as you go. At the time a space faring civilization reaches the Oort cloud, which is the largest step on the exponential scale of economics & technology, the distances will break down communication and population coherence. Galactic Oort cloud colonization, since stars w planets are costly gravitational wells, is naturally radio silent.

You can play the number game and speculate on the extremely low likelihood that some insanely stupid civilization will build Daedalus-like interstellar rockets, or some monstrously huge and complicated transportable von Neumann replicators that achieves what a biosphere does in a more compact form, for a large part of a planets yearly budget for an unrealistic long time. I think you will see that likelihood fits the observational constraints.
2.3 / 5 (3) Sep 01, 2012
I think the obvious answer is that ETIs exist in abundance, but have very effective "game reserve" policing to allow other species the space to evolve. An inter-specific kindness. All the exponential runaway growth assumed by most Fermi Paradox (non-)discussions is the first ludicrous assumption that we Biologicals project on to what are most probably Post-Biological civilizations.
2.5 / 5 (2) Sep 01, 2012
If something is 12 to 13 billion years old it may have the patience to observe and maybe wisdom not to disturb. Even the most stupid Ph.D. should be able to imagine what would happen in the current state of 'civilisation' on this planet when there would be a contact. Well there may be on a small scale - logic should tell us that there is no Fermi Paradox.
2 / 5 (1) Sep 02, 2012
Economics of long distances implies that the major pathway for colonization will remain settlement jumping, using the local resources as you go. ... monstrously huge and complicated transportable von Neumann replicators that achieves what a biosphere does in a more compact form, ..

The logical model is very small, light sail propelled replicators. Those could create a network spanning the galaxy in around 10 million years at 1% of the speed of light for example (the theoretical limit for an aluminium sail is around 2%).

Compared to the several billion years in which the metallicity of the galaxy has permitted life to exist, that duration in minimal.

They could then use local materials to build whatever surveilance instruments you care to imagine but "contact" would remain optional.
5 / 5 (1) Sep 03, 2012
I have no idea if there is intelligent life outside of earth but if there is then there is significantly more plant and animal (unintelligent life?) out there. Eventually we will build telescopes to look at other planets from space and see the surface. Once that happens, it will be obvious if we are the only planet with life. Truth be told, it would be much simpler if there isn't anyone else out there. We will be able to view other planets hundreds or even thousands of years before we can realistically reach them. This means that if no one is out there, by the time we can colonize others systems, there will be a massive catalog of the best planets to colonize. With a couple hundred billion stars out there, there should be plenty of good planets.

If we see plants on another planet then it should be safe to assume that intelligent life is out there (but not necessarily on the first planet with plants we see).
not rated yet Sep 03, 2012
To fraternize or not to fraternize with aliens... it is the prisoner's dilemma in disguise.

And in the prisoner's dilemma, it statistically pays to screw the other party. Just think about it, SETI funboys...