Stellar Chemical Clues As To The Rarity of Exoplanetary Tectonics
Unterborn et al
Earth's tectonic processes regulate the formation of continental crust, control its unique deep water and carbon cycles, and are vital to its surface habitability. A major driver of steady-state plate tectonics on Earth is the sinking of the cold subducting plate into the underlying mantle. This sinking is the result of the combined effects of the thermal contraction of the lithosphere and of metamorphic transitions within the basaltic oceanic crust and lithospheric mantle. The latter of these effects is dependent on the bulk composition of the planet, e.g., the major, terrestrial planet-building elements Mg, Si, Fe, Ca, Al, and Na, which vary in abundance across the Galaxy. We present thermodynamic phase-equilibria calculations of planetary differentiation to calculate both melt composition and mantle mineralogy, and show that a planet's refractory and moderately-volatile elemental abundances control a terrestrial planet's likelihood to produce mantle-derived, melt-extracted crusts that sink. Those planets forming with a higher concentration of Si and Na abundances are less likely to undergo sustained tectonics compared to the Earth. We find only 1/3 of the range of stellar compositions observed in the Galaxy is likely to host planets able to sustain density-driven tectonics compared to the Sun/Earth. Systems outside of this compositional range are less likely to produce planets able to tectonically regulate their climate and may be inhospitable to life as we know it.