From Centauri Dreams: “Enter the ‘Synestia’”

Centauri Dreams

May 24, 2017
Paul Gilster

What happens when giant objects collide? We know the result will be catastrophic, as when we consider the possibility that the Moon was formed by a collision between the Earth and a Mars-sized object in the early days of the Solar System. But Sarah Stewart (UC-Davis) and Simon Lock (a graduate student at Harvard University) have produced a different possible outcome. Perhaps an impact between two infant planets would produce a single, disk-shaped object like a squashed doughnut, made up of vaporized rock and having no solid surface.

Call it a ‘synestia,’ a coinage invoking the Greek goddess Hestia (goddess of the hearth, family, and domestic life, although the authors evidently drew on Hestia’s mythological connections to architecture). Stewart and Lock got interested in the possibility of such structures by asking about the effects of angular momentum, which would be conserved in any collision. Thus two giant bodies smashing into each other should result in the angular momentum of each being added together. Given enough energy (and there should be plenty), the hypothesized structure should form, an indented disk much larger than either planet.

Image: The structure of a planet, a planet with a disk and a synestia, all of the same mass. Credit: Simon Lock and Sarah Stewart

The paper [ AGU Journal of Geophysical Resarch ] on this work notes that “…the structure of post-impact bodies influences the physical processes that control accretion, core formation and internal evolution. Synestias also lead to new mechanisms for satellite formation.” Moreover, Stewart and Lock believe that rocky planets are vaporized multiple times during their formation. Thus synestias should be a common outcome in young systems.

See the full article here .

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Tracking Research into Deep Space Exploration

Alpha Centauri and other nearby stars seem impossible destinations not just for manned missions but even for robotic probes like Cassini or Galileo. Nonetheless, serious work on propulsion, communications, long-life electronics and spacecraft autonomy continues at NASA, ESA and many other venues, some in academia, some in private industry. The goal of reaching the stars is a distant one and the work remains low-key, but fascinating ideas continue to emerge. This site will track current research. I’ll also throw in the occasional musing about the literary and cultural implications of interstellar flight. Ultimately, the challenge may be as much philosophical as technological: to reassert the value of the long haul in a time of jittery short-term thinking.