Discussion and news about the modern effort to understand the nature of life on Earth, finding planets around other stars, and the search for life elsewhere in the universe

Monday, February 28, 2011

A whiff of blue sulfur

A lot of observations, especially those relating to the deep history of a planet, tend to become received wisdom after a time. This is not to say that they are wrong, but it's certainly true that the light of new investigations can modify what we thought to be right.

A good example of something that might just cause some hiccups is the recent discovery that the molecular forms taken up by most terrestrial sulfur may be very different in the planetary interior than closer to the surface.  A new work by Pokrovski and Dubrovinsky together with a discussion by Manning in last week's Science indicates that the forms of sulfur in our planetary innards should include a significant amount of a triple-sulfur molecular ion known as the trisulfur anion (S3-).

The part of the planet they probed is usually about 100 kilometers below us. Given its inaccessible nature they used a diamond anvil and some clever techniques to both re-create the pressure-temperature environment (about 10,000 atmospheres and a few hundred degrees) and to examine the molecular structures that form. The trisulfur anion reared its head. Previously it was generally considered that sulfate and hydrogen sulphide would be the dominant high-temperature sulfur compounds popping out on the surface of a young, geophysically active planet. It's the reactions of these compounds with atmospheric oxygen that has provided one of the key tools by which we've measured its geological abundance - since oxygen alters the isotopic ratios of sulfur atoms in mineral deposits. Throwing more trisulfur into the mix may require a revision of what we think oxygen levels were 2-4 billion years ago. This could have significant ramifications for phenomena that we relate to oxygenation, including the rise of multi-cellular life.

There is another, more poetic side to this result. Not only do the very hot geofluids under scrutiny help transport and deposit gold on our planet, the presence of trisulfur suggests a similarity to another precious resource. Lapis lazuli gets its vivid blue coloration from the shuffling of electrons related to the trisulfur anion. As Manning notes, if trisulfur is abundant at depth then much of the world beneath us could be a rather hot, but appealing ultramarine.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Make me a planet

Planet formation. Not so long ago one might have said that we had some pretty good ideas about how it worked. None of them were perfect for sure, but the general feeling was that somewhere in amongst the various studies we were edging towards a reasonable physical model. On the one side was core accretion - the coalescence of solids from a proto-planetary disk with giant planets slurping up gas after passing a critical core size and rocky planets coming along a little later. On the other was gravitational instability - density patterns in proto-planetary disks reaching critical points of instability where gravity would collapse gas to giant spherical blobs that could then hoover up solids to build a core. Later evaporation might produce ice-giants and the rocky planets would still form by direct accretion. A combination of these mechanisms seemed increasingly likely.

Now in the past couple of weeks a slew of new results and reconsidered old results seem to be calling for some serious rethinking of what we know about planet formation. The recent Kepler data release indicates a propensity for highly packed planetary systems - if you can build it, it will be there. It also demonstrates that Neptune-class worlds are incredibly common (actually confirming earlier microlensing results). It also further confirms an apparent 'pile-up' or discontinuity in very short period planets. Around 3 day orbital periods then something is going on between planets and their parent stars to hold them back from being tidally hauled to death in stellar atmospheres. New ultra-high fidelity imaging of young planetary systems confirms earlier sightings that proto-planetary disks of gas and dust can be far from symmetric or simple. A simple interpretation of the lop-sided annuli of circumstellar material is that we're watching as giant proto-planets scoop up matter during their multi-decade orbits. The extent of the disturbances is intriguing. 

Imaging of giant planets on very long orbits of 100 astronomical units, as in the Formalhaut system, are an immense and surprising challenge to planet formation models - especially if the orbits are not highly elliptical, which could be explained by dynamical scattering from an inner origin. And finally, there is the revised talk of an outer giant in our own solar system, perhaps 1 to 4 times the mass of Jupiter. If such a world, currently nicknamed Tyche, were to exist lurking beyond about 2,000 astronomical units (orbital periods of more than 90,000 years) then our solar system would have likely formed as a highly lopsided star-planet binary.

Where do we go from here? It's quite a challenge. There was already a long list of yet-to-be-fully-solved issues, from orbital inclinations and retrograde planets to orbital migration and tidal evolution. An inherent difficulty is the vast parameter space involved. Even with a single coherent model for planet formation then every individual system will evolve at the whim of non-linear dynamics and stochastic or random processes. It seems quite likely that we will end up having to adopt some type of classification scheme to just sort the wheat from the chaff. The big question is what classification scheme has the most physical meaning?

The one aspect that I personally glean from the new wealth of data is that it is almost overwhelmingly convincing that if there is an opportunity for planets to form then they will, with a vengeance. If even pulsars can host objects likely re-coalesced from post-supernova debris then there are some pretty potent mechanisms at play. For me this suggests that a fertile ground for investigation might be to flip the question around to ask exactly what the tipping point is? Do all stars initially form planets? Or is there a critical level of element abundance, dynamical environment, or radiation environment below which there cannot be planet formation of any kind? How many of those twinkling objects in the night sky are genuinely barren and alone?

Monday, February 21, 2011

The X factor

This past week the Sun underwent an X-class solar flare and subsequent coronal mass ejection event. It was notable for a number of reasons. The Sun is slowly emerging from a minimum of activity - part of its roughly 11 year cycle of magnetic disturbance - and this was the most significant event of the past 4 years where Earth was in the line of fire for millions of tons of protons squirting out into interplanetary space. Flares come in C, M and X classes - only M's and X's have the potential to cause significant impact on Earth's upper atmosphere and geomagnetic system. It was also notable for the serious media attention it received.

In part this is probably due to a big, thorough, and thoroughly scary report that the National Academy of Sciences put together back in 2008. 'Severe Space Weather Events – Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts' is actually fascinating reading, but it also pulls no punches. Modern human civilization has built itself an infrastructure that is acutely vulnerable to geomagnetic interference. Yes, satellites can get knocked out by solar storms. Yes, GPS can be disrupted for significant periods (aren't you glad that worldwide air travel is now utterly reliant on global positioning?). But the real double-whammy comes from the trillion watt electrical currents induced in the Earth's atmosphere and conductive surface and subsurface structures. We already know what this can do. Knock out eastern Canada's power grid for 9 hours in 1989. Melt huge electrical transformers in New Jersey. A hundred million dollars of damage in a couple of hours. And that was mild. Back in 1859 the so-called 'Carrington Event' was an upper X-class solar belch that caused large parts of the United States new telegraph system to overload and catch fire. Vivid aurora were seen in the skies as far south as Cuba. Campers thought dawn had come in the Rockies. 

The National Academy report soberly estimates that another big X-class event hitting the Earth full on could cause $1-$2 trillion in basic infrastructure damage. Now that's a deficit. Little wonder that those in communications, power supply, and a host of other industries are watching the Sun very closely. We've built a lot of new systems in the past 11 years that have not yet been tested by solar storms.

All of this is close to home, but it may offer some important insight to a seemingly perennial topic in the search for life elsewhere. Much attention is focused on  planets around low mass stars - over 70% of all stars are less than 1/2 the mass of our Sun. Lower stellar mass and smaller radius means that radial velocity and transit planet surveys can reach down to lower mass planets. Greater numbers also up the odds of planet-hosting systems in our immediate galactic neighborhood, far better for detailed study. These stars have extremely long hydrogen-fusing lifetimes, into the trillions of years for an object 1/10th the mass of our Sun. The drawbacks are that planets in the small and narrow habitable zones of such stars are both likely to be slow-rotating, tidally locked worlds, and subject to the excessive crankiness of this stellar class.

Energy transport within the lowest mass stars is almost entirely via convection. In other words, low mass stars are bubbling, seething spheres of plasma that more or less turn themselves inside out on a regular basis. Our own Sun by comparison is very static in its deep interior, energy being carried solely by photons bouncing their way up through its bulk. Low-mass stars flare like crazy for at least the first 1-2 billion years of their lives, and potentially much longer. Whether Earth-type planets in close orbits can remain habitable has long been a topic of discussion. At the crudest level it comes down to whether a planet can hold onto its atmosphere in the face of stellar onslaught. It seems that even a modest planetary magnetic field can go a long way to preventing atmospheric erosion. 

Our current predicament points to another issue though. It's awfully hypothetical, but perhaps not as much as it was a few months ago, before Kepler confirmed the planetary richness of our galaxy. Could technological life develop on a world pounded by geomagnetic disturbances? I know, big jump here. Usually I'm discussing how appallingly earth-centric we are about the nature of life, but for once let's allow some leeway. It seems that figuring out how to exploit the flow of electrons could be severely hampered for anything but the smallest types of apparatus (planet of the iPods?). Radio-wave communication might be an enormous challenge. The radiation environment in low to high orbit could be severe - and even with a planetary magnetic field then atmospheric density variations due to flare energy input would make spacecraft stability an ongoing headache. Humans did pretty well at surviving long, long before voltaic cells - albeit as a more agrarian species. On a planet kept under electromagnetic siege there would be little to be gained by moving technology in an electrical direction. Could there be intelligent and advanced life out there that just doesn't bother with cell-phones, GPS, or planetary radar because it's too much hard work?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Oceans in the night

Talk of planets, planet-like moons, and the origins of terrestrial water tends to lead to all sorts of visions of nice moist worlds and warm tropical beaches. Or perhaps that's just me. It feels like it's been a long winter. This kind of bias is extremely persistent. Even when we talk about the potential for sub-surface oceans on moons like Europa or Ganymede it can be very hard to overcome the sense that these are secondary, and second-class, environments. The truth is actually rather surprising.

For quite some time planetary scientists have studied the possible interior environments of a wide range of solar system bodies. Much can be done with purely theoretical models that seek to determine the appropriate hydrostatic balance between an object's own gravity and its internal pressure forces - be they from gaseous, liquid, or solid states of matter. Thermal energy from formation, and critically from radiogenic heating (radioactive decay of natural isotopes), all play a role. Throw in a few actual datapoints, measurements of places like Europa or Titan, and these models get much better calibrated. The intriguing thing is that one can play around with compositions and the internal layering of material in a planet-like body to find the best looking fit. As a consequence the nature and extent of any subsurface zones of liquid water can be estimated.

Asking for liquid water is a bit like asking for 'a coffee' in Starbucks. Is that a demi-latte-mocha-skim-sweet-n-low, or hot water with caffeine in it? It's extremely unlikely for water anywhere in a planetary body to be pure. Water is a fabulous polar solvent, and can absorb astonishing quantities of other things. Throw in ammonia by the bucket load and while you'd not want it in that cappuccino you still have liquid water that might be microbial ambrosia. Adding solutes can also dramatically lower water's freezing point. Stuffing in 30% Ammonia by weight can get a freezing point below 200 Kelvin (-100 F). This opens up many avenues.

Allowing for a number of variables it is possible to evaluate the likely size of subsurface water oceans in our solar system. The numbers start to get interesting. Estimates vary but here's a sampling: Europa, 2x Earths ocean volume, Ganymede and Callisto each about 1/2 Earth's ocean volume, Titan possibly 10x Earth's ocean volume, Triton 2x Earth's ocean volume. None of these numbers are particularly optimistic or pessimistic, but from these bodies alone there could readily be 10 to 16 times more liquid water slurping around off-Earth than on it.

Things get even funkier when we start to consider what might be going on beneath the surface of Trans-Neptunian Objects - those distant cold objects of which Pluto is the prototype. Factoring in estimates of their number, their history of formation, and radiogenic heating then some claims suggest that these distant dark worlds could harbor more liquid water than all the rest of the solar system. Part of the trick is that a thick layer of tens of kilometers of frozen water, methane, nitrogen and so on actually provides great insulation against thermal loss to the vacuum of space.

Some caution is advised though. Clearly many, if not all, of these environments may operate with far less energy flux - thermal or chemical - than Earth-bound oceanic systems. Some might well drop below the mean levels required to sustain any kind of deep dark biosphere. But if we insist that liquid water, polluted or otherwise, is a key ingredient for life then there is far more real estate in the solar exurbs than in our neighborhood.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Oasis Earth

Water is such an integral part of life on this planet that it's surprising we don't really know where it all came from. The more we've figured out about the Earth's origins and the formation of the solar system the trickier it's all got. Part of the problem is that the Earth must have formed in a region of the proto-planetary disk surrounding our baby star well within the so-called 'snow line'. Picture a thick glop of gas and dust shaped a bit like a squashed donut in orbit around a proto-sun. It's a big structure, extending out to perhaps 100 astronomical units where it thins down to almost nothing. The increasingly hot proto-sun in the middle heats up material around it, but the great donut is a pretty effective sunshade. The gas is also pressing ever inwards and as it compresses it warms up. The end result is that in the central plane, a horizontal slice through the chunky disk, it is warm towards the proto-sun and cooler and cooler the further out you go.

Somewhere, perhaps at around 4 astronomical units out, the temperature drops below 170 Kelvin (-103 Celsius). For water this represents a transition. It's the temperature at which water molecules in a vacuum will begin to stick together at an exponential rate. It's water's sublimation point. In the proto-planetary disk then water pours out of the gas phase, freezing into solids and making the snow line. Little wonder that the giant planets and moons have such an enormous water content. For little Earth, forming around 1 astronomical unit there's nary a drop in sight.

Clearly Earth had its thirst quenched somehow. The precise nature of when and how it acquired water-bearing material has long been a puzzle. An intriguing new result in Nature Geoscience by Greenwood et al, along with a nice review by F. Robert seems to provide an enormous and juicy clue. Remarkably this comes not from some fancy new mission or astronomical observation but from applying new geochemical analysis to rocks brought back by the Apollo astronauts. Ion micro probe measurements of the mineral apatite reveal not only that the Moon has a lot more water than we thought ('lot' being a relative term), that it played a role in the Moon's early geophysical life, and that most of it seemingly has a different origin to terrestrial water.

Deuterium, the heavier isotope of hydrogen, is twice as abundant in lunar water than water on Earth. The ratio of deuterium to hydrogen has long been a fingerprint of where compounds, including water, come from in the solar system. More deuterium indicates a colder chemical origin. Cometary water has a lot more deuterium than water in meteorites. Earth's oceans look a lot more like water from volatile rich meteorites and asteroids than they do the chilly water from comets. But the Moon...Well, the Moon turns out to have water that is more consistent with a cometary origin. Pounding the Moon with comets shortly after it formed could do the trick. However, this leaves a problem. Up to this point a best bet for most of Earth's water had been the deposition of material by carbonaceous chondrite type rocks, sometime following the formation of the Moon. Either the Earth dodged the thousands or millions of comets that painted the Moon or the Moon dodged the water bearing rocks that buried the Earth.

What a predicament. How can two bodies so intimately linked, one formed from the detritus of a great collision with the other, avoid having the same cocktail flavor? One possible solution, articulated by Robert, is that both Moon and Earth got moistened by comets first. Then Earth got hit by perhaps one great object that sailed past the Moon and splatted the Earth with water containing far less deuterium - diluting the terrestrial mix.

While the discussion is not over it does raise a point of acute astrobiological interest. If this scenario is correct then that final event must have provided a very significant fraction of the Earth's water. Therefore we owe much of the past 4 billion years of gloriously damp climate to that singular moment. What if it had never happened? How habitable would Earth have been? Despite our models of forming planets that seem to indicate gaining water is quite common, there is still tremendous chance involved. Oases may indeed be hit or miss.

Sunday, February 6, 2011


In the continued wake of the Kepler results that indicate a likely wealth of planets in our galaxy I thought I'd post a rather more personal note about an intimately related area that I think in many respects parallels where exoplanetary science was in the early 1990's.

Our solar system plays host to an extraordinary array of natural satellites, or moons. Many of these are entirely comparable in size, composition, and even chemical and geophysical activity to bona-fide planets. The only real difference is that these worlds reside deeper in the orbital hierarchy. Nine regular satellites in our system have diameters greater than 1500 km, the largest (Ganymede and Titan) are over 5000 km in diameter - larger than the planet Mercury. Io around Jupiter has extensive and active silicate and sulfur-rich volcanism. Titan has a frigid atmosphere that is somewhat denser than the Earth's, and a diverse and global hydrocarbon cycle from gas to liquid to solid. Many moons have signs of active and quiescent cryo-volcanism - from Enceladus to Triton and Europa. They also show good evidence for subsurface liquid water oceans that readily exceed the total volume of Earth's oceans. It is little wonder than many of the current concepts for future solar system exploration missions focus on these objects - they are tremendously interesting.

It is also true that our models of how moon systems form are even less well developed than our models of planet formation. It seems that moons around giant planets probably form out of circumplanetary disks of gas and dust much like a scaled-down version of planet formation itself, but there are many caveats. There's another sneaky truth; simulations of forming planetary systems are not typically set up in ways that allow us to track satellite formation, capture, or loss (embarrassed cough). In this sense we're even further behind than the equivalent situation for planets two decades ago.

Intriguingly though the prospects for detecting moons around exoplanets may not be too bad. It may even be on a par with the situation in 1994, on the cusp of the first radial velocity exoplanet discoveries. Lurking already in the bounty of Kepler data there could be evidence for exomoons as transit duration and transit timing variations. Moons make their planets wobble just as planets make their stars wobble by offsetting the system center-of-mass.

There are some new rules though. Stellar tides can be very bad for moons. The same forces that operate to eventually bring a planet into spin-synchronicity or tidal lock with a star also perturb satellite orbits and can pump their orbital ellipticity to a point where the moon just sails off. Additionally, once a planet becomes tidally-locked to its star then there are in fact no stable moon orbits and any such objects will over time spiral inwards due to moon-planet tides. The upshot of all this is that within about 0.6 astronomical units of a solar-mass star then in all but the youngest systems you might not expect to find any moons - assuming of course that they formed in the first place. So this recent Kepler data release of planets within about 0.5 AU of their stars may not be the ideal place to look. Kepler release 3.0 may be another story when we begin to confirm planets on longer orbits.

My own interest in exomoons was in part stimulated by what is perhaps the modern classic paper on the subject, by Williams, Kasting and Wade in 1997. By Jim Kasting's own admission the inspiration for this paper titled 'Habitable moons around extrasolar giant planets' came from a viewing of a certain episode of a certain sci-fi franchise depicting a place called Endor. It's a lovely paper. A key point in it was that gravitational tides in moon systems due to moon-moon interactions could be pivotal in dissipating enough energy to make up for a moon being well outside the classical habitable zone of a star. Instead of stellar heating you'd have more geophysical heating. In 2005 I attempted a bit of a followup of my own and with some funding from NASA made a small study of the potential for 'habitable' moons around the then known exoplanets. The idea was simple, we knew the stellar input for these planets and any moons they might have, so what kind of tidal forces would be needed to push them to temperatures that could sustain liquid surface water? I was surprised to find that it could all work out pretty well. Although there are several caveats then tidal heating in a plausible range could effectively double the size of the habitable zone in these systems if we were willing to consider moons as well as planets. The lovely thing about it all was that the energy for this all geophysical warmth came from the spin and (ultimately) orbital energy of the giant planet. Life powered by angular momentum? Perhaps so.

Five years later and I was sitting on a tediously long flight watching a movie about blue-skinned aliens romping around on a lush tropical moon orbiting a gas giant planet in the Alpha Centauri system. It occurred to me how funny it was that two epic Hollywood productions framed the interim works on exomoons, obviously we should listen to scriptwriters more often. It also occurred to me that exomoons might just be ready to fully emerge from the astrophysical subconscious. A few recent publications seem to have confirmed that.

We may talk about finding the first 'Earth-like' planet (once we figure out what that actually means). What if we're more likely to find an 'Earth-like' moon around an ice or gas giant? The odds quite conceivably favor such a situation. There may be a few million rocky planets in habitable zones in the galaxy, but there could be as many or more rocky, watery moons in the extended habitable zones around giant worlds. 

I'm not for a moment suggesting that we divert attention from hunting exoplanets. I also hope that some of the pioneers who devoted themselves prior to 1995 to what was seen as a fringe pursuit are the ones to find that Earth-twin, they deserve to. However, if we find barren world after barren world it will be time to turn our gaze on those strange and fantastic places that are held in thrall of giant planets.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

It's full of Neptunes...

Among the multitude of delicious Kepler results to digest from yesterday was an estimate of the frequency of occurrence of particular planet categories.  Now the full report by Borucki et al. is available we can take a closer look.

By allowing for the known geometric effects of transit detections, sensitivity effects from stellar brightness, observation time and transit frequency and models of noise and false positive rates then the authors take a careful stab at computing the true population numbers for planets. It's not unlike being shown a single snapshot of part of a forest that also happens to be shrouded in fog and having to guess how many trees there really are. With some logic and statistics you can probably make a pretty good estimate.

The results are intriguing. For the range of stellar types in the Kepler data (mostly normal F, G, and K stars that range from a bit less massive to a bit more massive than the Sun) then it is estimated that about 6% of all such stars harbor 'Earth-sized' planets less than 1.25 times the radius of Earth within orbits of 0.5 astronomical units - or half the size of Earth's actual orbit. This orbital cut-off is simply due to the fact that Kepler has not been observing for long enough to find planets further out - yet.

Slightly larger planets, so-called 'Super-Earths' up to 2 times the size of our homeworld are similarly numerous and occur around about 7% of all such stars. Jupiter sized planets, between 6 and 15 times the girth of Earth should be present around about 4% of stars. Again, on orbits within 0.5 astronomical units.

Remarkably, the most numerous planets are those in the 'Neptune' size range, between 2 and 6 times Earth-radius. About 17% of all such stars should play host to these hefty worlds. This is to my mind a clear and excellent challenge for our theories and models of planet formation. Whatever schemes we come up with had better reproduce this kind of population distribution.

Then there is one other tantalizing feature. Borucki et al. subdivide these results into bins according to orbital radii. The trend for all planetary sizes is remarkably flat. What does that mean? It means that if one were to extrapolate these results to larger orbital radii, to the planets yet to emerge as Kepler continues its long hard stare, we might expect very similar results for all those worlds in the magical zone that is equivalent to where our own Earth orbits its G-dwarf star. In a galaxy of 200 billion stars this would imply a few million such circumstances. Of course it's not really magical, that's just our prejudice. Nonetheless whether it's scientific or not, we would perhaps all dream more interesting dreams if we knew that small rocky worlds orbited other Suns just the way we do.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

It's full of planets...

All the signposts were there but as always in science the proof is in the pudding. Today the Kepler mission made its second major data release and served up a massive dose of sugar and carbohydrates. With 1,235 good planet candidates, 90% or more of which are likely to pan out as the real deal then things are looking awfully rich in the hunt for those small rocky worlds that could resemble the Earth. Indeed, 68 of the new Kepler finds are less than about 1.25 times the radius of the Earth and 54 are orbiting in their stellar habitable zones. Of those latter worlds then one is 0.9 times the size of Earth, and four are less than twice the size, the rest are rather bigger - all the way up to gas giants.

There's a good chance that if you look down the street you'll see an astronomer running along chanting 'here we go, here we go'. It's such an outpouring of data that its impact is likely to continue well into the years to come. As long, that is, as societies continue to support the scientific effort. An excellent series of discussions on the state of play for exoplanetary science can be found in the recent posts by Lee Billings on boingboing, and he nails the pros and cons of these exhibitions of success. Hype can be good, but it's a tricky business.

The big Kepler list is fabulous but some of the details are even more fascinating. In this week's Nature the Kepler team also report on a remarkable system Kepler-11 in which no less than 6 planets appear to be transiting the parent star. The analysis by Lissauer et al.  shows what you can do with this kind of data. Single transiting planets yield no direct handle on planet mass, only radius. Multiple transiting planets can provide a wealth of information on the orbital dynamics of a system and constraints on masses as the planets tug at each other, together with estimates of orbital ellipticity. Kepler-11 is a highly, even ridiculously 'packed' system. The 5 inner planets all have orbital periods between 10 and 47 days. Since Kepler-11 is a G-dwarf star like the Sun this is as if 5 planets orbited within Mercury's territory. Yet in dynamical terms the system appears to be quite stable, and should remain so for at least the next few hundred million years.

At least four of the planets seem to be less than 10 times the mass of the Earth, with the smallest at around 4 Earth masses. They all also appear to have substantial atmospheric envelopes on the basis of their densities. The likely components of this gas range from hydrogen to water vapor or 'steam' dominated. Kepler-11 presents a fascinating test case for models of planet formation. Most are probably lacking. The arrangement of these worlds, their apparent compositions, and their uncomplicated orbits suggests that as they formed they were coaxed and settled by a significant amount of gas or small rocky objects that helped smooth things out - a bit like a dynamical muffler. This is not simple though, and almost certainly not a universal rule.

It's all enough to give one heartburn. The great news is that Kepler is confirming that planets are extremely numerous. Time will tell exactly how many 'Earth-type' worlds there are, that is still open for bets. The bad news, a bit like getting the bill after such extravagance, is that we are really, really going to have to work hard on our models of planet formation.