National Aeronautics and Space Administration Logo
Follow this link to skip to the main content NASA Banner
Solar System Exploration
Science & Technology
Origins of Planetary Systems and the Development of Prebiotic Conditions

Research by M. Velli, (PI), M. Allen, G. Bryden, K. Grogan, R. Kidd, G. Orton, N. Turner, K. Willacy 1 S3263, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California, 2 S3222 IBID, 3 S312A IBID, 4 S3226 IBID

Research Objectives:

Scientists at NASA's JPL brought together expertise in planet formation and prebiotic chemistry to develop new interdisciplinary tools for interpreting observations of protostellar disks returned by space telescopes such as Spitzer and Hubble. From these observations the scientists are extracting key signatures of planet formation to provide clues to the physical processes at work. There are four main areas of study the scientists chose to begin creating the planetary formation model:

Illustration showing increase of dust and gas volume over time.
The panels above show a selected volume of the disk a few AU in size, and the evolution of the dust and gas over time given by MHD simulations.

Transport of Gas and Dust

An outstanding issue in protostellar disk evolution is the observed variability of accretion onto the central star. The variations could be produced by collisions between solid bodies within the disk. Dust released after the collisions can spread through the turbulent gas, soaking up ions and electrons and reducing the conductivity so the magnetic fields that drive the accretion are no longer coupled to the gas. The accretion is switched off until the dust settles or coagulates.

Disk Morphology in the Presence of Planets

Computer generated illustration of planet finding technique.
Sub-millimeter observations of Vega above left show evidence of a face-on disk around 100 AU in radius, with a central clearing.

Both ground and space based observations show evidence for interesting morphological structure in disks. For example, some disks seem to display inner holes, typically assumed to be due to clearing processes invoked by the gravitational influence of an embedded planet. In order to quantify these processes in greater detail, the scientists used used dust orbital evolution codes to follow the paths of particles in the presence of a planet. They found strong variations in the spatial distributions of dust as a function of planet mass, which has direct relevance to future planet finding missions such as SIM PlanetQuest and TPF.

Chemical Composition of Planet Forming Disks

Observations of molecules in young disks provide valuable information about the chemical composition and physical conditions. Understanding how molecules form in the disk, the likelihood that they can survive as the disk evolves and planets form, and their transport around the disk is fundamental to understanding the origin and evolution of the chemical and biological precursors for life.

Color graph
This figure shows early results of linking chemical and protostellar disk models with radiative transfer codes. It also shows the distribution of CO and resulting spectra from a planetary disk viewed head-on.

The scientists engaged in modeling the evolution of molecules and their distribution in protoplanetary disks. They have begun to use these results with a radiative transfer code to produce simulated line spectra that provide the observational signature that would be expected to be seen for a given molecule. The figure above illustrates their work. Shown is the calculated CO abundance distribution across a young disk (red is high abundance, green/blue is low abundance) and the simulated spectra such a distribution would produce.

Photometric Variability due to Embedded Planets

Embedded planets are expected to cast a shadow across the disk, resulting in significant photometric variability over an orbital period of the planet. The above figure is a snapshot from a movie showing our model disk, with a Neptune mass planet at 4AU. The red cross to the lower right of the figure represents the photocenter of the system. As the orbital period progresses the photocenter moves to an extent greater than the SIM PlanetQuest accuracy (1 microarcsecond), represented by the size of the cross itself. This technique demonstrates how SIM photometric observations can be used for planet finding, and related to the mass and orbital characteristic of the disk.


Computer simulation used to detect Neptune-sized planet.
Model of shadowing across a protostellar disk caused by a Neptune mass planet at 4 AU. As the planet orbits the star the shadow varies in position causing significant variability of the system photo center.

This study brings together the expertise and theoretical models in a range of scientific fields bearing on the structure of proto-stellar disks, the formation of planets within the disks, and the development of pre-biotic chemistry in the material incorporated into the planets.

Significance to Solar System Exploration

This research will allow NASA missions to better detect and characterize extra-solar planets, including observations from the Herschel Space Observatory, SIM PlanetQuest, the Terrestrial Planet Finder Interferometer, and the Terrestrial Planet Finder Coronagraph. The research project has brought together scientists from a variety of disciplines to more comprehensively assess the evolution of circumstellar disks and the origins of planets.

Last Updated: 21 January 2014

Science Features
Astronomy Features
Technology Assessment Reports
Sungrazing Comets


Best of NASA Science
NASA Science Highlights
Technology Features
Lectures & Discussions

Awards and Recognition   Solar System Exploration Roadmap   Contact Us   Site Map   Print This Page
NASA Official: Kristen Erickson
Advisory: Dr. James Green, Director of Planetary Science
Outreach Manager: Alice Wessen
Curator/Editor: Phil Davis
Science Writers: Courtney O'Connor and Bill Dunford
Producer: Greg Baerg
Webmaster: David Martin
> NASA Science Mission Directorate
> Budgets, Strategic Plans and Accountability Reports
> Equal Employment Opportunity Data
   Posted Pursuant to the No Fear Act
> Information-Dissemination Policies and Inventories
> Freedom of Information Act
> Privacy Policy & Important Notices
> Inspector General Hotline
> Office of the Inspector General
> NASA Communications Policy
> NASA Advisory Council
> Open Government at NASA
Last Updated: 21 Jan 2014