Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Extrasolar Carbon Planets

In the inner solar system, the terrestrial planets - Venus, Earth and Mars are silicate planets as the bulk of their mass is primarily composed of silicon-oxygen compounds. These planets were formed from the coalescencing of planetesimals which condensed out of a protoplanetary disk of material orbiting the young Sun at around five billion years ago. In the case for the inner region of our solar system, the condensation of silicon-oxygen compounds to form silicate planets is the domineering process because the carbon to oxygen ratio of the protoplanetary disk in this region is only around 0.5, making oxygen the dominant component. In our region of the solar system, iron-peak elements condensed at the highest temperatures, followed by silicates at slight lower temperatures, water at 180 degrees Kelvin and eventually other volatiles such as ammonia and methane at lower temperatures. Hence, the Earth is comprised of an iron-nickel core within a large silicate mantle and topped on the exterior surface by water and other volatiles.

The condensation sequence of the material in a protoplanetary disk can be dramatically different if the carbon to oxygen ratio is above 0.98 whereby instead of silicates, the high temperature condensates will be carbon-rich compounds such as graphite and carbides, resulting in an entirely different class of planets. These planets are termed carbon planets where carbon is the most abundant component. A carbon planet will have an iron-nickel core just like our Earth. However, the layers of material surrounding the iron core will be very different as the mantle of a carbon planet will be comprised of silicon carbide and titanium carbide. Above the planet’s mantle, a layer of graphite will extend up to the surface of the planet, making up the crust of the planet. The deeper parts of this graphite crust will be subjected to high pressures and it will result in the formation of a global shell of crystalline diamond covering the entire planet.

The atmosphere of a carbon planet will be primarily composed of carbon monoxide or methane and the surface may be covered by precipitations of tar-like substances and other carbon-rich compounds. Such an atmosphere will be reducing instead of oxidizing. A carbon planet that orbits at a very close distance from its host star can loose its atmosphere due to atmospheric escape from the extreme heating, thereby directly exposing its solid surface to the vacuum of space. Such a carbon planet will remain exceptionally stable against the extreme heat as it will be protected by layers of heat resistant shells of graphite, silicon carbide or even diamond. In comparison, a silicate planet will have less protection due to the much lower melting and vaporizing temperatures of silicate compounds. The heat resistance of carbon compounds is exemplified in silicon carbide which is a ceramic used for lining the cylinders of automotive engines and in diamond which remains solid up to a temperature of around 4000 degrees Kelvin.

For a terrestrial planet like our Earth, the atmosphere is characterized by the presence of oxygen-rich gases such as carbon dioxide, oxygen and ozone. However, the atmosphere of a carbon planet will have an absence of these oxygen-rich gases and instead, the atmosphere will be dominated by carbon monoxide or by methane for a cold carbon planet. Cold and low mass carbon planets are conducive for the survival of long chains of photochemically synthesized carbon compounds. On such a planet, the temperatures can even be low enough for methane and ethane to condense and rain out of the atmosphere to form lakes and seas of hydrocarbons, similar to those found on Titan. Carbon planets are probably more common in regions closer towards the galactic centre because the stars there tend to contain a larger proportion of carbon as compared to stars like our Sun which is located further away from the galactic centre.