Was Earth once a big spinning ‘doughnut’?

(Credit: Getty Images)

A giant, spinning, doughnut-shaped mass of molten or vaporized rock—called a “synestia”—may form as planet-sized objects smash into each other in space, scientists propose in a new paper.

And at one point early in its history, the Earth itself was likely a synestia, says Sarah Stewart, a professor in the earth and planetary sciences department at the University of California, Davis. Stewart and coauthor Simon Lock, a graduate student at Harvard University, describe the new object in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets.

An illustration of a synestia
Synestias form when planet-sized objects crash into each other with high energy and angular momentum. This new object opens up new ways to think about how the moon formed, and they could be spotted in other solar systems. (Credit: Simon Lock)

Lock and Stewart study how planets can form from a series of giant impacts. Current theories of planet formation hold that rocky planets such as the Earth, Mars, and Venus formed early in the existence of our solar system as smaller objects collided with each other. These collisions were so violent that the resulting bodies melted and partially vaporized, eventually cooling and solidifying to the (nearly) spherical planets we know today.

“We looked at the statistics of giant impacts, and we found that they can form a completely new structure.”

Lock and Stewart are particularly interested in collisions between spinning objects. A rotating object has angular momentum, which must be conserved in a collision. Think of a skater spinning on ice: If she extends her arms, she slows her rate of spin, and to spin faster she holds her arms close. Her angular momentum is the same.

Now consider two ice skaters turning on ice: if they catch hold of each other, the angular momentum of each adds together, so their total angular momentum must be the same.

Lock and Stewart modeled what happens when the “ice skaters” are Earth-sized rocky planets colliding with other large objects with both high energy and high angular momentum.

“We looked at the statistics of giant impacts, and we found that they can form a completely new structure,” Stewart says.

The researchers found that over a range of high temperatures and high angular momentum, planet-sized bodies could form a new, much larger structure, an indented disk rather like a red blood cell or a doughnut with the center filled in. The object is mostly vaporized rock, with no solid or liquid surface.

They have dubbed the new object a “synestia,” from “syn-,” “together” and “Hestia,” Greek goddess of architecture and structures.

The key to synestia formation is that some of the structure’s material actually goes into orbit. In a spinning solid sphere, every point from the core to the surface is rotating at the same rate. But in a giant impact, the material of the planet can become molten or gaseous and expands in volume. If it gets big enough and is moving fast enough, parts of the object pass the velocity needed to keep a satellite in orbit, and that’s when it forms a huge, disk-shaped synestia.

Photos capture debris from galactic collisions

Previous theories had suggested that giant impacts might cause planets to form a disk of solid or molten material surrounding the planet. But for the same mass of planet, a synestia would be much larger than a solid planet with a disk.

Most planets likely experience collisions that could form a synestia at some point during formation, Stewart says. For an object like the Earth, the synestia would not last very long—perhaps a hundred years—before it lost enough heat to condense back into a solid object. But synestias formed from larger or hotter objects such as gas giant planets or stars could potentially last much longer, she says.

The synestia structure also suggests new ways to think about lunar formation, Stewart says. Earth’s moon is remarkably similar to Earth in composition, and most current theories about how the moon formed involve a giant impact that threw material into orbit. But such an impact could have instead formed a synestia from which the Earth and moon both condensed.

Busted moon could put rings around Mars

No one has yet observed a synestia directly, but they might be found in other solar systems once astronomers start looking for them alongside rocky planets and gas giants.

NASA and the US Department of Energy supported the work.

Source: University of California, Davis