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Episode 106: A Fission Origin for the Planets, Part 2

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Recap: From forming the moon by budding it off Earth in the last episode, we go to forming the planets by them budding off the Sun. This is mainly an idea by the late Tom van Flandern, and I go through his model, his evidence for it, and the evidence against it, and there is a discussion of some of his surviving advocates.

Puzzler for Episode 106: There was no Puzzler in this episode.

Q&A: There was no Q&A for this episode.

Additional Materials:


Additions/Corrections from Last Episode

I'm going to start this episode in a way I haven't before, and that's with some additions and corrections from last time, to help transition us into this topic. Remember that the last episode was that Earth's moon - and indeed all planetary moons, though I didn't go into those - is formed through a fission process, budding off of an initially molten planet.

First up is a clarification from Derek on the blog, who pointed out that I said the Moon orbits 5.1° from Earth's equator -- it's actually 5.1° from the ecliptic, meaning that it's inclined relative to Earth's equator by 23.5±5.1, or about 18.4-28.6°. As Derek pointed out, this only accentuates the point that the Moon is very far from Earth's equator, making it incredibly difficult to see how it could be spun off from Earth at the equator.

Expat, also on the blog, pointed out that on page 16 of Mike Bara's book, Ancient Aliens on the Moon, he wrote:

“In van Flandern’s model, the Moon didn’t break away from the primordial Earth _after_ it cooled and solidified, it spun off out of the early _molten_ Earth. This would also explain why the Moon is made up primarily of material from the Earth’s lighter mantle, rather than the heavier iron-rich core. The only observation that isn’t accounted for is the fact that the Moon’s orbital plane is inclined by 5.14° to the Earth’s. However, there could be numerous explanations for this (like later impacts which forced the Moon to a different position) and so this is not a show-stopper for the theory.”

Bara makes the mistake that orbital plane is not equator. So, you would have to do one of two things for Mike to be correct. Either Earth orbited initially with a 5.14° inclination, such that the Moon budded off at the equator, and then EARTH was somehow tilted, or the Moon's orbit was moved a huge amount to get it to orbit 18.4-28.6° from Earth's equator. Or, a combination of both. The problem is that there's no mechanism. Mike gives a hand-wavey, "like later impacts which forced the Moon to a different position," but if he wants to argue that, he needs to give an example of when that's happened unequivocally in the past, or show his math.

I would argue that other solar system moons shows that you can't move a moon that much in its orbit due to the huge amount of energy involved. For example, Jupiter's moons are certainly hit by more stuff than ours because Jupiter acts as a gravitational focus, bringing stuff in. And yet, the four main moons of Jupiter, all of which except one are smaller than our moon, orbit at 0.04°, 0.47°, 0.21°, and 0.51° relative to Jupiter's equator. Titan, the largest moon of Saturn and smaller than Earth's moon, orbits at 0.33° relative to Saturn's equator. Not 18.4-28.6°. Without even doing the math, I think these argue strongly against impacts being enough to push a moon that far away from the planet's equator. And the moon surviving that process.

And, as a final correction to last episode, and transition to this one, Expat pointed out that it was in his Ancient Aliens on the Moon, not The Choice, that Mike Bara advocated for the fission model. It's in The Choice that he advocated for planetary formation via fission ...

Claim: ... which is the claim for this episode, that planets are birthed by spinning off from their parent star.

Details and Evidence

In feedback to this podcast, many people have noted that I appear very objective, don't get into ad hominem attacks, and approach the raw facts with a wry sense of humor. It's very difficult to do that in this episode because the topic is so ludicrous and supported by the flimsiest of cherry-picked evidence while still requiring a ridiculous amount of special pleading and mystical forces the likes of which have yet to be demonstrated.

Take, for instance, the discussion proposed in Tom van Flandern's book and on his website - for he was probably the biggest modern proponent of the idea.

The model starts with the basic premise that the solar system started with just the sun. It spun really fast, and every so-often, it would throw off planets in pairs. These planets would migrate outward to where we see them today. These planets would sometimes spin fast enough that they, too, would sprout their own pairs of moons, as discussed in the last episode. Earth's moon lacking a counter-part apparently not being a detriment to this idea.

The planets' original years around the sun were in multiples of 2, following a somewhat modified Titus-Bode Law. Each pair was not at the same distance, but rather they were spaced in their multiples of 2 with each successive pair continuing out. Since what I just said makes no sense, let me give the example by way of re-explaining, where all units in this explanation are in units of Earth's distance from the sun, Earth's mass, and Earth's year:

Under his model, Venus was the closest planet to the sun and had an original distance of 0.5 (current is 0.7), an original year of 0.35, and original mass of 0.8 (current is 0.82). Earth was next with an original distance of 0.8 (current is 1.0 by definition), original period of 0.7 - twice 0.35 - and original mass of 1.0 (same as present, by definition). Next out were planets V and K, with original years of 1.4 and 2.8, original masses of 8 and 10, and they don't exist anymore. Next out were planets A and B with original years of 5.6 and 11 and original masses of 120 and 150. They don't exist anymore. Remember - van Flandern is an advocate of the idea that planets randomly explode.

Next out are Jupiter and Saturn as a pair, Jupiter originally having a year of 22 and Saturn 45. This corresponds to original distances of 7.9 and 13, though the current distances are less than that, 5.2 and 9.5. van Flandern claims their original masses were 65 and 80 Earth masses, though they are now 318 and 95, somehow. Uranus and Neptune are next, originally 20 and 32 AU away, now 19.2 and 30, with original years of 90 and 180. Their original masses haven't changed much, from 14 to 14.6 now, and 17 to 17.3. Next out are planets T and X, with original distances of 50 and 80, original years of 360 and 720, and original masses of 2 and 3.

He claims that Mercury was a moon of Venus, Mars was a moon of Planet V, the dwarf planet Ceres was a moon of Planet K, and Pluto and Charon were moons of Neptune.

As I said, it is hard to maintain objectivity in this discussion. It's like he literally just made this up, pulling it out from ... somewhere.

I've read through the Meta Research website, and I've read through the chapter of his book that's available online via Google Books, though a few pages here and there are missing. Here's what I can gather are his problems with the traditional accretion model:

1. "It is often spoken of intuitively obvious that moons and planets, while forming, would eventually sweep up all the material in or near their orbits. Actually, that is not possible in the simplest, intuitive sense. Objects in the same orbit as a larger mass are forced to 'librate' back and forth, always avoiding collision with the larger mass. The most outstanding example of this libration phenomenon is the Trojan asteroids in Jupiter's orbit. And it is obvious that the various planetary rings in the solar system are not tending to accrete into larger bodies."

2. "98% of the angular momentum ('energy') in the solar system is in the planets, not in the Sun. Yet these planets account for only a bit over 1/1000 of the mass of the Sun. That at first seems like a very unnatural state of affairs."

3. "It is now recognized that accretion from a solar nebula would not necessarily cause the planets to spin in the same direction as they orbit."

The next page is missing from the Google version of the book, but it's clear that his model of a fission origin would solve these issues. Which, so far as I can tell, is his evidence, which uncomfortably sets up a bit of a false dichotomy, though I don't think he was trying to actually use the false dichotomy as evidence - as in, I haven't seen him write that because the nebular accretion model doesn't work in his mind, it must be fission.

How His Problems Aren't Problems

So, at least from what is freely available, van Flandern proposed three problems to the nebular accretion model of planetary origins that he said are solved by his fission model. Perhaps it was simply when he wrote about this stuff, but these are really non-issues and stem from an argument from personal incredulity.

The first issue is that he doesn't think stuff should "stick" together. He's wrong. In a disk of planetary material, relative velocities between particles tend to be ridiculously small. And, self-gravity plays a large role. His analogies to Jupiter's Trojan asteroids and Saturn's and other rings are false.

Trojans are 60° ahead and behind of a planet's orbit, and that is because they are stable points due to the sun's and planet's combined gravity. But, you need a planet there to start with before those points can form.

As for rings, the analogy is also completely broken. A minimum-mass solar nebula - the absolute minimum amount of material needed to form the planets under the nebular model, is around 1/100th a solar mass. And, the disk would be spread out over 10s of AU. Which is, very roughly a few thousand times the diameter of the sun.

In contrast, the mass of Saturn's rings is about 0.0000001, or 1/10M-th the mass of Saturn. And, it's spread out over about 0.2 saturnian diameters.

If you don't like numbers, these boil down to two extremes: The solar nebula would be spread out over a huge distance and be a reasonable fraction of the sun's mass. Saturn's rings - the densest planetary rings we know of today - are hundreds of thousands of times less massive than the solar nebula would have been, relative to what they orbit, but they are thousands of times closer to what they are orbiting. The physics, and what can accrete and stick together, are completely different between those systems. And yet, in the outer regions of Saturn's outer rings, we do get small bodies accreting together into stable features. As you go further out, you can get larger and larger bodies. Completely contrary to what van Flandern states as his first problem.

From what I can tell, the angular momentum problem - van Flandern's second issue - is still something of a research question today. Various solutions have been proposed, and most of them deal with the sun dynamically transferring angular momentum to the solar nebula or it radiating it away through the solar wind, like a spinning ice skater slowing down by throwing bits of lead weights she's carrying. In other words, while this is still an unsolved problem from what I can tell, there are reasonable solutions to it that do not in any way doom the model and require a fission formation.

The third problem is not a problem so far as I can tell. His reference to noted planetary scientist J.J. Lissauer is a bit of a quote-mine from outdated research. Lissauer stated that his models - and these are from 1992, not from 2014 - that a growing planetesimal would spin only once a week, not once a day. So, that work, from 1992, required a different explanation or other parameters that they didn't know about to solve the problem. Which we now have. It's one of those cases of how science works, where you start out with a simple model, and then you add more and more real physics on top of it. In this case, when you add more and more physics, such as the influence of gas instead of just dust, you no longer have this kind of problem. To van Flandern's slight defense, he was writing that in 1993 in his book and 1997 on his website.


With his problems not actually being problems for the nebular model, what about problems with his own model? There are ... many.

One that he tries to address is inclination. While the planets orbit mostly in the same plane, if they were flung out from the equator of a rapidly rotating star, one would expect them to orbit exactly at that star's equator. None of the planets do this, and none of the pairs that he identifies, such as Earth-Venus, Jupiter-Saturn, or Uranus-Neptune, orbit in the same plane as the other alleged pair member. Just as I argued at the beginning of this episode that it would require an inordinate amount of mystery energy to alter the orbits that much of just Earth or the Moon, the same goes for planets. Except even more-so. van Flandern wrote:

"The principal reasons why this idea was rejected earlier are that the Sun's present spin is well below an overspin condition; and its equator is tilted about 7 degrees to the mean plane of the planets. But both of these conditions can easily arise from subsequent evolution [for example, by magnetic breaking], especially if (as it appears) the Sun's interior presently spins much faster than its surface. [...] And the tilt of the Sun's spin axis will be altered during its contraction, both by interactions between its faster-spinning 'core' and its slower-spinning 'mantle,' and by the same sort of tilt-changing interaction with the planets we proposed for the Earth-Moon system following the Moon's fission from the Earth."

I think that van Flandern under-estimated the amount of energy required to do this, and he admits to not doing any calculations to back it up.

A second major problem of his model is the composition of objects. We know from oxygen isotope data - discussed in episode 89 - that Earth, Mars, and asteroids all formed in different parts of the solar system. Not at the sun. We also know that Earth's elemental abundance is somewhat different from Mars', and we've studied the atmospheres of the gas giant planets and though they superficially appear to be in pairs, they are different. For example, Saturn's molecular hydrogen content is larger than Jupiter's, and its helium content is only 1/3 of Jupiter's. The helium content of Neptune is 25% more than Uranus.

Yeah, sure, if you throw away Mercury, Mars, and Pluto, superficially Venus and Earth kinda look like pairs, Jupiter and Saturn kinda look like pairs, and Uranus and Neptune kinda look like pairs. If you throw away those other three planets. And ignore some of the major differences between the pairs. Though it could be argued that Jupiter and Saturn are more like each other than any other planet, Venus and Earth also, and Uranus and Neptune also. So while I personally think that this is crapy evidence and is better explained by the nebular model, it's not necessarily wrong evidence on van Flandern's part.

But, for his model to work, I've saved the obvious for last: van Flandern's model requires not only for the planets we see today to have moved - which actually isn't a big issue - but for them to lose or gain a huge amount of mass, for some of the planets to have been moons of other planets but now be in nice stable orbits, and for at least four planets to have exploded. In fact, van Flandern stated on his website:

"Evolution of the planets would typically proceed via tides and drag toward the maximum-stability Titius-Bode-Law configuration, wherein each planet has a circular, co-planar orbit with double the orbital period of the next planet in. Once that was achieved, further orbital evolution would cease."

Except, none of the planets orbit in perfect circles, none of them are co-planar, and none of them have a year double to the next-planet-in. And somehow Jupiter gained 250 Earth masses of material after it formed, and Saturn gained an entire Uranus' worth of material. And, van Flandern's model requires the outer member of the pair to be heavier, so Jupiter should be swapped with Saturn. And at least four planets exploded (see Episodes 29 and 30 for more on that).

Modern Defender: Mike Bara

While I don't think it's poor form to argue against a deceased man's ideas, since they are his ideas, not him himself, and the evidence should speak for itself, van Flandern's fission model for planetary formation does have a still-living defender, embodied in Mike Bara.

In some of his writings and speakings, Mike has defended the fission model and claimed that new discoveries of exoplanets support the model. For example, in September 2008, an expolanet around the very young star 1RXS J160929.1-210524 was directly imaged, estimated to be anywhere from 7 to 16 Jupiter masses, and observed to be 330 AU (Earth-Sun distances) from its parent star. Its discovery did pose problems for the standard nebular collapse model because the basic model requires much more time for an object so far out to form. An obvious solution is that it did not form there, but it was flung out from interactions with another, larger planet much closer in. Or, there are theoretical modifications to the nebular collapse model like disk instability that I'm just going to name and not get into, that could solve the time problem, or you could have a much more massive protoplanetary disk. Or, we could just throw everything out and say that it's fission.

Which is what Mike does. Completely ignoring that van Flandern's fission model requires a second planet, but none was observed, and six years later we still haven't seen any twin, and it certainly doesn't follow any multiple-of-two spacing in its year around the star. And, Mike's explanation of how it got so far away is, "it has been ejected from its parent star a relatively short time ago," because "it seems obvious that we are seeing, in near real time, the birth of a new planet in accordance with the fission model."

Fast-forward to 2013, when in March he wrote on Facebook, "This finding reinforces the solar fission theory of planetary formation I advocate in my 2nd book 'The Choice[.]'" He linked to an article on Yahoo! news that reported on the observations of a still-forming Jupiter-sized planet around star HD 100546. Unfortunately, the article itself stated,

"According to current theory, giant planets grow by capturing some of the gas and dust that remains after the formation of a star. The astronomers have spotted several features in the new image of the disc around HD100546 that support this protoplanet hypothesis. Structures in the dusty circumstellar disc, which could be caused by interactions between the planet and the disc, were revealed close to the detected protoplanet."

So, rather than it supporting fission, the observations themselves support the nebular collapse model.

As a final example Mike Bara wrote a blog post in August 2013, claiming that the "newly discovered world" - even though it had been discovered two years earlier - GJ 504b, "have [sic] driven a further nail in the coffin of NASA's shopworn accretion model of planetary formation and give [sic] a substantial boost to late Dr. Tom Van [sic] Flandern's solar fission theory [sic] of planetary formation."

Mike this time explained away the problem of this being a lone planet by arguing that we simply can't see the companion planet yet. But, because it poses problems for the standard model - which is not "NASA's" model, by the way - Mike states, "the fact that we can't yet see GJ 504c does nothing to change the fact that this new observation fits the solar fission theory perfectly, and directly contradicts the increasingly discredited accretion model."

Except, it doesn't. Mike's argument is exactly the same as a young-Earth creationist's saying that radiocarbon dating of a live seal to hundreds of years old means that the age of Earth is only 6000 years old. The format of his argument is this:

1. An observation of an exoplanet is not easily explained by the simple nebular collapse model.

2. Therefore that model is "directly contradicted."

3. It does not directly contradict the fission model because I have ignored or explained away key parts of what the fission model requires.

4. Therefore, this observation fits the fission model perfectly.

Replace some terms, and you have a creationist argument that most of us are probably more familiar with.


And, in this case, just as with the others, the more data points we have, and the more ideas we include into the primary model, the more we are likely to come up with a more unified model for planetary formation. But, between the nebula collapse model and fission from a star, though, I would consider it easy money to place my bet on nebula collapse, in some form, as being the ultimate model shown to work.

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