Chaotic planetary systems no place for life

New research hints at planetary chaos in some solar systems, which may be incompatible with life, according to Mount Holyoke’s Thomas Burbine.

By Keely Sexton

Somewhere out there in the silent night sky, bedazzled with countless winking stars, planets are silently crashing into their own suns and getting instantly incinerated.

Thomas Burbine, visiting lecturer of astronomy at Mount Holyoke College, spoke to Discover Magazine about recent research that made it possible to “observe” this phenomenon. 

About a quarter of the Milky Way’s star systems are governed by gravitational chaos. In those systems, planets are subject to the same tiny shifts that occur in our own planetary alignment — but instead of canceling themselves out, as ours tend to do, wobbles in other systems can add up over time to cause wild orbital changes, ultimately causing planets to crash into their own stars. 

To demonstrate the existence of these self-cannibalising planetary systems, the researchers analyzed the chemical properties of twin star systems where the suns would be expected to be identical. Tiny differences in the chemical composition between twin suns indicate that they had been changed by engulfing their planets.

“It might be more shocking if a star didn’t eat a planet, but prior to this study, there was no way of proving this,” said Burbine.

One of the implications of the work is that in planetary systems where chaos reigns, life is unlikely to evolve or persist. 

“If you want to look for life, you want things to be peaceful,” said Burbine.

Read the article.