Prevalence of short-lived radioactive isotopes across exoplanetary systems inferred from polluted white dwarfs
In the Solar System short-lived radioisotopes, such as 26Al, played a crucial role during the formation planetary bodies by providing a significant additional source of heat. Notably, this led to early and large-scale melting and iron core formation in planetesimals and their loss of volatile elements, such as hydrogen and carbon. In the context exoplanetary systems, therefore, the prevalence of short-lived radioisotopes is key to interpreting the observed bulk volatile budget and atmospheric diversity among low-mass exoplanets. White dwarfs that have accreted planetary material provide a unique means to infer the frequency of iron core formation in extrasolar planetesimals, and hence the ubiquity of planetary systems forming with high short-lived radioisotope abundances. Here, we devise a quantitative method to infer the fraction of planetary systems enriched with shortlived radionuclides upon planetesimal formation from white dwarf data. We argue that the current evidence from white dwarfs point towards a significant fraction of exo-planetesimals having formed an iron core. Although the data may be explained by the accretion of exo-moon or Pluto-sized bodies that were able to differentiate due to gravitational potential energy release, our results suggest that the most likely explanation for the prevalence of differentiated material among polluted white dwarfs is that the Solar System is not unusual in being enriched in 26Al. The models presented here suggest a ubiquitous pathway for the enrichment of exoplanetary systems by short-lived radioisotopes, disfavouring short-lived radioisotope enrichment scenarios relying on rare chance encounters with single nearby supernovae, Wolf-Rayet or AGB stars.
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