Back before we knew for sure there were planets around other stars, the universe seemed likely to be ordered. If planet formation was common, then we’d see systems more or less like our own, with rocky inner worlds and gas giants in outer orbits. And if planet formation was a fluke, we’d find few planets to study. All that has, of course, been turned on its head by the abundant discoveries of exoplanets galore. And our Solar System turns out to be anything but a model for the rest of the galaxy. In today’s essay, Don Wilkins looks at several recent discoveries that challenge planet formation theory. We can bet that the more we probe the Milky Way, the more we’ll find anomalies that challenge our preconceptions.

by Don Wilkins

The past few decades have not been easy on planet formation theories. Concepts formed on the antiquated Copernican speculation, the commonality of star systems identical to the Solar System, have given way to the strangeness and variety uncovered by Kepler, Hubble, and the other space borne telescopes. The richness of the planetary arrangements defies easy explanation.

Penn State University researchers uncovered another oddity challenging current understanding of stellar system development. [1] Study of the LHS 3154 system reveals a planet so massive in comparison to its star that generally accepted theories of planet formation cannot explain the existence of the planet, Figure 1. LHS 3154, an “ultracool” star with a “chilly” surface temperature of 2,700 °K (2,430 °C; 4,400 °F), is an M-dwarf, a category that comprises three quarters of the stars in the Milky Way. Most of the light of LHS 3154 is in the infrared band. The M- dwarf star is nine times less massive than the Sun yet it hosts a planet 13 times more massive than Earth.

Figure 1. An artist rendition of the mass comparison between the Earth and Sun and the star LHS 3154, and its companion, LHS 3154b. Credit: Pennsylvania State University.

In current theories, stars form from condensing large clouds of gas and dust into smaller volumes. After the star forms, the left-over gas and dust which is a much smaller fraction of the original cloud, settles into a disk around the new star. From this much smaller mass, planets will condense, completing the star system. In these theories, the star consumes the major proportion of the progenitor clouds.

The Sun, for example, contains an estimated 99.8% of the mass of the Solar System. Only 0.2% is left over for the eight planets, various moons and asteroids.

The mass ratio comparing LHS 3154b to LHS 3154 is 117 times greater than mass ratio comparing the Earth to the Sun. LHS 3154b probably is Neptune-like in composition, completes its orbit in 3.7 Earth days and, the researchers believe, is a very rare world. Typically M-dwarves host small rocky bodies rather than gas giants.

According to current theories, once the star formed, there should not have been enough mass to form a planet as large as LHS 3154b. A young LHS 3154 disk dust-mass and dust-to-gas ratio must be ten times greater than what is typically observed surrounding an M-dwarf star to birth a giant such as LHS 3154b.

“The planet-forming disk around the low-mass star LHS 3154 is not expected to have enough solid mass to make this planet,” Suvrath Mahadevan, the Verne M. Willaman Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State and co-author on the paper said. “But it’s out there, so now we need to reexamine our understanding of how planets and stars form.”

Mahadevan’s team built a novel spectrograph, the Habitable Zone Planet Finder (HPF), with the intention of detecting planets orbiting the coolest of stars. Planets orbiting low temperature stars might have surfaces cool enough to support liquid water and life. In looking for planets with liquid water, the team found, as often happens in research, something new, a massive planet to challenge current theories of stellar system formation.

Another discovery, this time by a Carnegie Institution for Science team, uncovered another challenging world. [2]

Figure 2. Artist’s conception a small red dwarf star, TOI-5205, and its out-sized companion TOI-5205b. Credit: Katherine Cain, the Carnegie Institution for Science.

“The host star, TOI-5205, is just about four times the size of Jupiter, yet it has somehow managed to form a Jupiter-sized planet, which is quite surprising,” observed Shubham Kanodia, who led the team which found TOI-5205b.

When TOI-5205b crosses in front of TOI-5205, the planet blocks about seven percent of the star’s light—a dimming among the largest known exoplanet transit signals.

The rotating disk of gas and dust that surrounds a young star gives birth to its planetary companions. More massive planets require more of the gas and dust left over as the star ignites. Gas planet formation, in the accepted theories, requires about 10 Earth masses of rocky material to produce the massive rocky core of the gas giant. Once the core is formed, it gathers gas from the surrounding clouds, resulting in the mammoth atmosphere of the giant planet.

“TOI-5205b’s existence stretches what we know about the disks in which these planets are born,” Kanodia explained. “In the beginning, if there isn’t enough rocky material in the disk to form the initial core, then one cannot form a gas giant planet. And at the end, if the disk evaporates away before the massive core is formed, then one cannot form a gas giant planet. And yet TOI-5205b formed despite these guardrails. Based on our nominal current understanding of planet formation, TOI-5205b should not exist; it is a ‘forbidden’ planet.”

Not all mysteries are confined to M-dwarfs. A sun-like star, an infant of 14 million years some 360 light years from Earth, hosts a gas giant six times more massive than Jupiter, that orbits the star at a distance twenty times greater than the distance separating Jupiter and the Sun, Figure 3. [3]

Figure 3. A direct image of the exoplanet YSES 2b (bottom right) and its star (center). The star is blocked by a coronagraph. Credit: ESO/SPHERE/VLT/Bohn et al.

The large distance from YSES 2b to the star does not fit either of the two most well-known models describing large gaseous planet formation. If YSES 2b formed by means of core accretion at such an enormous distance far from the star, the planet should be much lighter than what is observed as a result of scarcity of disk material at that distant location. YSES 2b is too massive to satisfy this theory.

Gravitationally instability, the second theorized method for producing gas giants, postulates very massive protostellar disks that are unstable, splintering into large clumps from which gas giants are directly formed. YSES 2b appears not massive enough to have been formed in this fashion.

In a third possibility, YSES 2b might have formed by core accretion much closer to its host star and migrated outwards. A second planet is needed to pull YSES 2b into the outer regions of the system, but no such planet has been located.

Observations by the current generation of space-borne telescopes have upset the theories of planet formation. Hot Jupiters, worlds orbiting pulsars, odd arrangements of worlds, super Earths, and wandering worlds flung close to a star then flying back have complicated the ideas of Laplace, See, Chamberlin and Moulton. Further study by the James Webb Space Telescope and its successors will only enliven the debate surrounding the origin of the planets.


[1] Guðmundur Stefánsson, Suvrath Mahadevan, Yamila Miguel, et al, “A Neptune-mass exoplanet in close orbit around a very low-mass star challenges formation models,” Science, 30 Nov 2023, Vol. 382, Issue 6674, pp. 1031-1035, DOI: 10.1126/science.abo0233.

[2] Shubham Kanodia et al, “TOI-5205b: A Short-period Jovian Planet Transiting a Mid-M Dwarf,” The Astronomical Journal (2023). DOI: 10.3847/1538-3881/acabce

[3] Alexander J. Bohn et al. “Discovery of a directly imaged planet to the young solar analog YSES 2.” Accepted for publication in Astronomy & Astrophysics,