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What Is the Nice Model, or How Did Our Solar System Form?

Leonard Kelley holds a bachelor's in physics with a minor in mathematics. He loves the academic world and strives to constantly explore it.

The Nice model attempts to explain the formation of our solar system.

The Nice model attempts to explain the formation of our solar system.

Origins of the Nice Model

Many models of our solar system's birth and growth have been formed and just as quickly disproven. Around 2004, a team of scientists met in Nice, France and developed a new theory as to how the early solar system developed.

This new model that they created was an attempt to explain some of the mysteries of the early solar system, including what caused the Late Bombardment Period and what pulled the Kuiper Belt together. Though not a definitive solution, it nonetheless is another stepping stone to the ultimate truth of how the solar system evolved.

The early outer solar system, with the Sun, Jupiter (yellow ring), Saturn (orange ring), Neptune (blue ring), and Uranus (green ring) surrounded by the Kuiper Belt (large icy blue ring).

The early outer solar system, with the Sun, Jupiter (yellow ring), Saturn (orange ring), Neptune (blue ring), and Uranus (green ring) surrounded by the Kuiper Belt (large icy blue ring).

Before the Resonance

Initially, in the solar system, all the planets were closer together, in circular orbits, and also nearer to the sun. The terrestrial planets were in the same configuration as they are now, and the asteroid belt was still between Mars and Jupiter, the remnants of destruction through gravity (which plays a central role in this scenario).

What was very different about the solar system then was the situation with the gas giants. They were all initially much closer together and therefore closer to the Sun because of gravitational and centripetal forces. Also, Neptune was not the eighth planet nor was Uranus the seventh but were in each other's present positions, switched.

Many of the objects that now reside in the Kuiper Belt were closer than they are now but were overall further away from the nearest planet to them than they are now. Also, the belt was much denser and full of icy objects. So what caused this all to change?

Jupiter and Saturn Enter Resonance

A subtle nuance of gravity-bound objects is an effect called resonance. This is when two or more objects complete orbits in a set ratio to one another. A few current examples are Neptune and Plutinos, or objects like Pluto that reside in the Kuiper Belt. These objects exist in a 2:3 resonance, which means that for every three orbits that Neptune completes, the Plutino completes two orbits. Another famous example are the Jovian moons, which are in a 1:2:4 resonance.

Jupiter and Saturn began to enter such a resonance about 500-700 million years after the solar system formed. Slowly but surely, Saturn began to complete one orbit for every two orbits that Jupiter went through. Because of the slightly-elliptical nature of orbital motion and this resonance, Saturn would get extremely close to Jupiter at one end of its orbit and then would get extremely far away at the other end of its orbit.

This essentially created a huge tug-of-war with the gravity in the solar system. Saturn and Jupiter would pull on one another, then release much like a spring. The losers in this constant shifting were Neptune and Uranus, for as Saturn was being perturbed it would cause the orbits of the outer two gas giants to grow increasingly unstable. Eventually, the system could not take any more, and chaos ensued (Irion 54).

The current outer solar system.

The current outer solar system.

Resonance Breeds Destruction

Once Saturn got close to the resonance, it began to affect the dynamic between Neptune and Uranus. Its gravity pull would accelerate both planets, increasing their velocities (54). Neptune was kicked out of its orbit and sent farther out into the solar system. Uranus got tugged in the process and was pulled with Neptune. As Neptune moved outward, the closer edge of the Kuiper Belt was tugged by this new planet, and much icy debris was sent flying into the solar system.

The Asteroid Belt would have also been kicked up during this. All of this material managed to impact many of the terrestrial planets including Earth and the moon and is known as the Late Bombardment Period (Irion 54, Redd "Cataclysm").

Eventually, though interacting with Uranus on its way outward as well as the inner edge of the Kuiper Belt, Neptune settled down into a new orbit. But now the gas giants were further apart than ever, and the Kuiper Belt now having its closer edge in great proximity to Neptune. The Oort Cloud was possibly formed during this also, with material being shot out of the inner solar system (54).

All of the tugging of the planets pull Saturn out of its resonance with Jupiter, and all traces of the destruction it laid to waste are only visible in certain places in the solar system such as the moon. The planets arrived into their final configuration through this resonance and will remain so...for now.

Evidence for the Nice Model

Large claims require large support, so what if any exists? The Stardust mission after visiting comet Wild 2 returned a sample of comet material. Instead of having carbon and ice (which formed away from the sun), a particular dust speck named Inti (Inca for the god of the sun) had large amounts of rock, tungsten, and titanium nitride (which formed near the sun). Those require a 3000 degree Fahrenheit environment, only possible near the sun. Something had to shake up the order of the solar system, just like what the Nice Model predicts (46).

Pluto was another clue. Way out in the Kuiper Belt, it had an odd orbit that was not in the ecliptic (or plane of the planets) nor was it mostly circular but very elliptical. Its orbit causes it to be as close as 30 AU to the sun and as far away as 50 AU. Finally, as mentioned earlier Pluto and many other Kuiper Belt Objects have a 2:3 resonance with Neptune. They cannot interact with Neptune because of this. The Nice Model shows that as Neptune moved outward, it tugged on the gravity of the Plutinos just enough to cause their orbits to enter resonance (52).

Mercury also provides clues to the likelihood of the Nice Model. Mercury is an oddball, basically a huge ball of iron with a minimal surface. If many objects collided with the planet, it could have had any surface material blasted off. On top of this, the orbit of Mercury is highly eccentric, further hinting at some major interaction(s) to help nudge it out of shape (Redd "The Solar").

Kuiper Belt object 2004 EW95 is another big piece of evidence for the Nice model. Its a carbon, iron oxide, and silicate-rich asteroid which couldn't have formed so far away from the Sun but instead had to of migrated there from the inner solar system (Jorgenson).

Indirect evidence exists when one examines Kepler systems, specifically the zone that corresponds to the inner zone before Mercury. Those systems have exoplanets in that zone, which is odd considering ours doesn't. Sure, some difference are expected but the more we find, the more likely it is we are an exception. About 10 percent of all exoplanets are located in this zone. Kathryn Volk and Brett Gladman (University of British Columbia) looked at computer models that showed what should end up happening, and sure enough, frequent collisions and planetary ejections would be normal, leaving a zone where roughly 10 percent are left. Turns out, solar system chaos is frequent! (Ibid)

The Nice model does a better job of explaining the solar system than the traditional solar nebula theory. Simply put, it states that the planets formed in their present spots from all the material that was in their vicinity. Rocky elements are closer to the sun because of gravity and gaseous elements were further away because of the solar wind the sun-generated.

But two problems arise with this. First, if this was so, then why was there a Late Heavy Bombardment Period? Everything should have been settled into orbits or have fallen into other objects so nothing should have been flying around the solar system like we see it did.

Secondly, exoplanets seem to counter the solar nebula theory. Giant gas planets orbit very close to their stars which would not be possible unless some gravitational shuffle caused it to fall into a closer orbit. They mainly have highly eccentric orbits also, another sign of not being in their original position but moved there (Irion 52).

More Evidence: The Nedagolla Meteorite

One piece of physical evidence that we may have is the Nedagolla meteorite, which fell to Earth in 1870. It contained unusual chemical compositions that indicated it was both carbonaceous and noncarbonacaeus, such as various levels of molybdenum in different parts of the meteorite. Radioactive dating placed its birth at just 7 million years post solar system formation.

These two clues point to the meteorite forming from a collision of different asteroids, something that could have happened as Jupiter migrated outward (O'Callaghan).

Works Cited

Irion, Robert. "It All Began in Chaos." National Geographic July 2013: 46, 52, 54. Print.

Jorgenson, Amber. "The first carbon-rich asteroid found in the Kuiper Belt." Discover Magazine. Kalmbach Publishing Co., 10 May 2018. Web. 10 Aug. 2018.

O'Callaghan, Jonathan. "Hints of a solar system smash-up." Science Direct. New Scientist, 02 Oct. 2021. Print. 19.

Redd, Nola Taylor. "Cataclysm in the Early Solar System." Astronomy Feb. 2020. Print.

"The Solar System's Violent Past." Astronomy Mar. 2017: 24. Print.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2014 Leonard Kelley


Ian J Miller from Lower Hutt, New Zealand on February 08, 2016:

I am afraid I disagree with the NICE model. There appear to be several versions of it, and the above is perhaps the "mildest" version. There is reasonable evidence that Jupiter/Saturn crossed their mean motion resonance the shape of the void bands in the asteroid belt, but to get Uranus and Neptune out there there has to be a specific distribution of planetesimals to account for the angular momentum issues if Jupiter does not go very far, or a massive number of asteroids if it does.

Part of the NICE model was set up to account for how the ice giants could form by the collisional accretion of planetesimals. They simply do not form fast enough in the outer regions, and anything over 10 AU will take tens of millions of years to get a planet, so the answer to that problem was to form them in the Jupiter/Saturn region. The concentration of objects falls off with r^x, x usually being thought of as 1.5, but collisions are dependent on concentration squared, until some body gets gravitationally very significant.

The problem then comes from the system LkCa 15, which is slightly smaller than the sun, is about 2 -3 My old, and has a giant at about 15.7 AU that is about 6 times Jupiter's mass. The planetesimal accretion mechanism simply cannot account for that.

In my opinion, the planets did not form from the accretion of planetesimals, but rather by monarchic growth of one object (or possibly a few) is specific zones due to the effects of temperature on interstellar ices. In this mechanism, if you assume Jupiter is in the right place, more or less, so are the other three giants, assuming the appropriate temperature distribution. I have outlined the details in an ebook "Planetary Formation and Biogenesis".