Frost line (astrophysics)

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In astronomy or planetary science, the frost line, also known as the snow line or ice line, refers to a particular distance in the solar nebula from the central protosun where it is cold enough for hydrogen compounds such as water, ammonia, and methane to condense into solid ice grains. Depending on density, that temperature is estimated to be about 150 K. The frost line of the Solar System is around 5 AU.[1] The term is borrowed from the notion of "frost line" in soil science.

The lower temperature in the nebula beyond the frost line makes many more solid grains available for accretion into planetesimals and eventually planets. The frost line therefore separates terrestrial planets from giant planets in the Solar System.[2]

However, giant planets have been found inside the frost line around several other stars (so-called hot Jupiters). They are thought to have formed outside the frost line, and later migrated inwards to their current positions.[3] The Earth, which lies less than a quarter of the distance to the frost line but is not a giant planet, has adequate gravitation for keeping methane, ammonia, and water vapor from escaping planetary gravitation. Methane and ammonia are rare in the Earth's atmosphere only because of their instability in an oxygen-rich atmosphere that results from life forms (largely green plants) whose biochemistry suggests plentiful methane and ammonia at one time, but of course liquid water and ice, which are chemically stable in such an atmosphere, form much of the Earth's surface.

Researchers Rebecca Martin and Mario Livio have proposed that asteroid belts may tend to form in the vicinity of the frost line, due to nearby giant planets disrupting planet formation inside their orbit. By analysing the temperature of warm dust found around some 90 stars, they concluded that the dust (and therefore possible asteroid belts) was typically found close to the frost line.[4]

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  1. ^ Mumma, M. J.; Disanti, M. A.; Dello Russo, N.; Magee-Sauer, K.; Gibb, E.; Novak, R. (2003). "Remote infrared observations of parent volatiles in comets: A window on the early solar system". Advances in Space Research 31 (12): 2563. doi:10.1016/S0273-1177(03)00578-7.  edit
  2. ^ Kaufmann, William J. (1987). Discovering the Universe. W.H. Freeman and Company. p. 94. ISBN 0-7167-1784-0. 
  3. ^ Chambers, John (2007-07-01). "Planet Formation with Type I and Type II Migration". 38. AAS/Division of Dynamical Astronomy Meeting. Bibcode 2007DDA....38.0604C.
  4. ^ "Asteroid Belts of Just the Right Size are Friendly to Life". Nasa. 1 November 2012. Retrieved 3 November 2012.