Saturday, October 17, 2009

Cosmic Heresy

A hypothesis is a theory looking for facts. That it is taken as 'fact' due to popular consensus does not make it so. Even if those who make up that popular consensus are scientists.


A new take on the cosmic clouds
Going back to the planetary drawing board, Dr Prentice revisited the work of legendary French mathematician Pierre-Simon Laplace, whose late 18th-century nebula model was abandoned after less than a century.
In Dr Prentice's modern Laplacian theory, as he calls it, the original cosmic cloud of gas and dust, which was once part of the galaxy, sheds a concentric family of orbiting gas rings as it contracts inwards from Neptune's orbit. "The material from which the planets formed was thus once concentrated in a system of very narrow and dense rings of gas, one for each planet, rather than being spread out thinly as a disc," he says.
Dust and ice grains condensed out of each gas ring to form a growing core of solids - the embryos of today's suite of planets. The inner solar system's rocky cores became the terrestrial planets of Mercury, Venus, the Earth and Mars. The outer solar system's cores of rock and ice grew big enough to capture great gaseous envelopes, thus becoming the gas giants, Jupiter and Saturn, and the outer planets, Uranus and Neptune.
"Because the gas within a gas ring is 100 times denser than that of the nebula disc model, the planets form 100 times faster," he says. Instead of being created in 2.5 million years, Saturn takes only 25,000 years. Neptune and Uranus form within 100,000 years. "These times lie well inside the 1 million year cut-off time."
As well as explaining the orbits and masses of HR 8799's newly discovered planets, his model predicts many key aspects of the chemical and physical structure of our own solar system's planets and their moons. One prediction, to be announced formally this month at a meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco, relates to the size of Mercury's massive iron core.
Another prediction is that, once analysed, the data from NASA's Messenger probe, which flew past Mercury in October, will reveal no significant traces of the volatile elements potassium, sodium or sulphur on the planet's heavily cratered surface. "That is what I expect NASA to announce very soon - I hope," says Dr Prentice.
His theory is still widely regarded as heretical, but at least one eminent physicist, Professor Paul Davies of Arizona State University in the US, says it should not be dismissed "out of hand".
Scientists' understanding of the solar system's formation is undergoing a review, with the recent discovery of hundreds of planetary systems around other stars, says Professor Davies. "Many of these systems have planets distributed very differently from the solar system, and a lot of head scratching is going on," he says. "The basic science is up for grabs, and we could be in for a big surprise."

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