Academic Positions

  • - 2019

    Exploration Fellow

    Arizona State University, School of Earth and Space Exploration

    2019 2016

    CPS Fellow

    University of Toronto, Centre for Planetary Sciences

    2016 2014

    Postdoctoral researcher

    Arizona State University, School of Earth and Space Exploration

Education & Training

  • Ph.D. 2014

    Ph.D. in Astronomy

    University of Cambridge, Institute of Astronomy

  • MPhys2010

    Master of Physics

    University of Oxford


  • 2016-2019
    Stop Hitting Yourself: Did most terrestrial impactors originate from the terrestrial planets
    Funding totalling $643k over 3 years awarded through the NASA Emerging Worlds program with Alan Jackson as Principal Investigator

Image credit: Gemini observatory/AURA, artist's impression of the Moon-forming giant impact

My research interests cover quite a wide range of topics, but the primary theme that unites them is a desire to understand the formation and evolution of planets and the systems in which they reside. I typically approach questions from a theoretical perspective, whilst always endeavouring to link back to observational or experimental data. Recently I have also been becoming more directly involved with observations and experiments.

A major topic that has been part of many aspects of my research is giant impacts, and in particular the debris that they produce. Giant impacts occur in the chaotic final stages of terrestrial planet formation when massive planetary bodies collide with one other to form the final terrestrial planets. These are some of the most violent events to occur during the planet formation process and can strongly influence the final makeup of terrestrial planets, both in terms of their mass and in terms of the proportions of elements and minerals of which they are composed. As a result of the violence of these giant impacts, in addition to producing the final terrestrial planets large quantities of small debris is also released.

The debris released will go into orbit around the host star and will be much more visible than the parent planetary bodies owing to its much larger area, in much the same way that if you blow even a small amount of flour or chalk dust into the air it can make it hard to see through. This debris can potentially remain visible for tens of millions of years after the originating giant impact and observing it would give us key insights into ongoing planet formation processes.

At the same time the debris released by a giant impact resides in a system of planetary bodies and will go on to collide with them after its initial release. This is an important mechanism to remove the detectable debris signature, and means that in addition to producing bright, dusty debris visible to astronomical observations, it will also result in a large spike in the rate of smaller collisions onto the planetary bodies, especially those involved in the original giant impact.

Asteroids and other small bodies in our solar system are relics of this early, violent, period of time and may also record evidence of the processes that led to the formation of the planets. In addition asteroids are now being considered as targets for deep space mining operations, and for both these purposes it is important to understand their internal structure and how this will have evolved over time.

Many of these topics are represented in the projects listed on the projects page, in addition major ambitions for the future include improving our knowledge of the size distribution of debris produced in impacts as this is a significant issue for all debris studies, and reducing our reliance on computationally intensive N-body simulations.

In the past I have also studied the evaporation of planetary atmospheres under the influence of high-energy radiation, and maintain an interest in the physics of planetary atmospheres and their evolution.

For more detail about individual projects please see the Projects page.


  • Formation and dynamical evolution of planetary systems, including our own
  • Formation and evolution of the Solar system planets, their surfaces and interiors
  • Giant impacts
  • Debris and debris disks
  • Celestial mechanics
  • Asteroid structure and granular mechanics
  • Planetary atmospheres

Image credit: Alan Jackson, summit of Mauna Kea looking towards the Keck and Subaru telescopes from the Gemini North telescope.

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    Aftermath of giant impacts

    Characterising the parameter space of the products of giant impacts

    It has now been widely recognised for some time that giant impacts are far from being simple perfect mergers and display a diverse range of outcomes (e.g. Agnor & Asphaug, 2004; Asphaug, 2010; Leinhardt & Stewart, 2012). Incorporating the effect of these non-perfect mergers into full N- body simulations of planet formation remains extremely challenging however, such that many studies still use the perfect merger model (e.g. Raymond et al., 2009), and the small number of studies that have attempted to investigate the influence of non-perfect mergers all have significant limitations.

    Our group at ASU has a database of over 1500 smoothed-particle hydrodynamic (SPH) simulations that represents an excellent resource to help tackle this problem. This database will allow us to construct parameter space maps of the behaviour and properties of giant impact products similar to those of Leinhardt & Stewart 2012, Stewart & Leinhardt 2012 but with greater parameter resolution, and especially improving our knowledge of the smaller debris that has been less well studied in the past and is subject to scale-dependent effects. In addition we will provide constraints on the initial orbits of the impactors and probability distributions for the post-impact trajectories of the impact products. These two components combined will then allow us to construct a statistical model of the giant impact phase which will be enormously beneficial in allowing us to gain insights into the planet formation process without recourse to computationally expensive N-body simulations.

    This project is being conducted in collaboration with Erik Asphaug and Travis Gabriel at SESE.

    Image credit: NASA, artist's impression of the giant impact that formed the Pluto-Charon system

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    Stop hitting yourself: did most terrestrial impactors originate from the terrestrial planets?

    Giant impacts inject large quantities of debris onto planet crossing orbits.

    Large amounts of the debris released in a giant impact is eventually re-accreted, either by the progenitor body or by other planets in the system. The amount of debris generated during the course of terrestrial planet formation is significant, each individual impact releases several per cent of the mass of the colliding bodies as debris, and in total over the course of the formation of Earth-size planets debris equal to about 10-15 per cent of their final mass will have been generated (e.g. Stewart & Leinhardt 2012). As this debris will have been heavily processed within a large planetary body, as well as subjected to strong shocks during the collision, it is likely to differ chemically from material that has never been incorporated into a large body. Accretion of, and impacts with, this debris material thus might have detectable influences on the final bodies in the system, especially in the case of our own solar system. Indeed Bottke et al 2015 showed that impacts with debris from the Moon-forming impact left a detectable signature on the asteroid belt in Ar-Ar ages. I am especially interested in the possibility of debris from the final giant impacts in the solar system having left impact crater records on bodies in the inner solar system with old surfaces, such as the Moon, Mars and Mercury, as well as the asteroid belt. For the progenitor body of the debris in particular re-impacting debris would interact with any magma ocean present on the body and influence the cooling of the magma ocean and the evolution of the planetary surface.

    I am the Principal Investigator for this project, which is a collaboration with Erik Asphaug and Linda Elkins-Tanton at SESE and David Minton at Purdue University, and is funded by NASA's Emerging Worlds program, grant number NNX16AI31G.

    Image credit: Tim Wetherell, Australian National University, artist's impression of the Moon during the Late Heavy Bombardment

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    Optically thick, variable debris disks

    A new class of variable debris disks has emerged in the last few years

    Giant impacts are violent events and the debris that is launched is subjected to strong shocks. The energy deposited in the debris is sufficient to vaporise substantial quantities of the material. The vapour cloud expands away from the planet and cools, eventually condensing to form droplets that are typically millimetres to centimetres in size (Melosh & Vickery 1991; Johnson & Melosh 2012, 2014). The total surface area of these vapour condensates is enormous, and can easily result in the debris cloud being optically thick. Optically thick debris is not something that is commonly considered for debris disks, and can lead to complex, variable behaviour. This variability can serve as a unique fingerprint encoding the properties of the progenitor body and its orbit and the high brightness of the vapour condensate phase may allow us to see collisions involving smaller bodies (perhaps only the size of Ceres) that would otherwise be inaccessible. The remarkable ID8 system (light-curve shown in the thumbnail) may be an example of a system in which we are seeing this kind of behaviour. This phenomenon also has important consequences for planet formation in the solar system and in exoplanetary systems and our ability to correctly recognise the debris byproducts of planet formation processes.

    This project is a collaboration with Kate Su, George Rieke and Andras Gaspar at the University of Arizona.

    Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona, graphic of the light curve of the system ID8 in 2012-2013

Image credit: NASA/JPL-caltech/SETI institute, Galileo mosaic of Europa

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Note: Only those conference abstracts that are a full page or longer are listed here

Students are indicated by a *

Can a Machine Learn the Outcome of Planetary Collisions?

Diana Valencia, Emaad Paracha*, Alan P. Jackson
Journal PaperThe Astrophysical Journal, Volume 882, Issue 1, article id. 35, 11 pp., September 2019


Planetary-scale collisions are common during the last stages of formation of solid planets, including the solar system terrestrial planets. The problem of growing planets has been divided into studying the gravitational interaction of embryos relevant on million year timescales and treated with N-body codes and the collision between objects with a timescale of hours to days and treated with smoothed-particle hydrodynamics. These are now being coupled with simple parameterized models. We set out to investigate if machine-learning techniques can offer a better solution by predicting the outcome of collisions that can then be used in N-body simulations. We considered three different supervised machine-learning approaches: gradient boosting regression trees, nested models, and Gaussian processes (GPs). We found that the former produced the best results, and that it was slightly surpassed by ensembling different algorithms. With GPs, we found the regions of parameter space that may yield the most information to machine-learning algorithms. Thus, we suggest new smoothed-particle hydrodynamics calculations to focus first on mass ratios >0.5.

M-stars Are Fast and Neat and A-stars Are Slow and Messy at Late-stage Rocky Planet Formation

Carey M. Lisse, Alan P. Jackson, S. J. Wolk, B. T. Snios, Steven J. Desch, Cayman Unterborn, R. I. Patel, James E. Owen, Olja Panic
Research NoteResearch Notes of the American Astronomical Society, Volume 3, Issue 7, article id. 90, July 2019


Here we take the results of diverse exosystem observational surveys, synthesized with our recent exodisk research, to form a novel hypothesis explaining stellar trends in late-stage rocky planet and circumstellar disk formation.

Oort cloud asteroids: collisional evolution, the Nice Model, and the Grand Tack

Andrew Shannon, Alan P. Jackson, Mark C. Wyatt
Journal PaperMonthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Volume 485, Issue 4, p.5511-5518, June 2019


If the Solar system had a history of planet migration, the signature of that migration may be imprinted on the populations of asteroids and comets that were scattered in the planets' wake. Here, we consider the dynamical and collisional evolution of the inner Solar system asteroids that join the Oort cloud. We compare the Oort cloud asteroid populations produced by migration scenarios based on the `Nice' and `Grand Tack' scenarios, as well as a null hypothesis where the planets have not migrated, to the detection of one such object, C/2014 S3 (PANSTARRS). Our simulations find that the discovery of C/2014 S3 (PANSTARRS) only has a > 1 per cent chance of occurring if the Oort cloud asteroids evolved on to Oort cloud orbits when the Solar system was less than 1 Myr old, as this early transfer to the Oort cloud is necessary to keep the amount of collisional evolution low. We argue that this only occurs when a giant (>30 Earth mass) planet orbits at 1 to 2 au, and thus our results strongly favour a `Grand Tack'-like migration having occurred early in the Solar system's history.

Extreme Debris Disk Variability: Exploring the Diverse Outcomes of Large Asteroid Impacts During the Era of Terrestrial Planet Formation

Kate Y. L. Su, Alan P. Jackson, Andras Gáspár, George H. Rieke, Ruobing Dong, Johan Olofsson, Grant M. Kennedy, Zoe M. Leinhardt, Renu Malhotra, Michael Hammer, Huan Y. A. Meng, W. Rujopakarn, Joseph E. Rodriguez, Joshua Pepper, D. E. Reichart, David James, Keivan G. Stassun
Journal PaperThe Astronomical Journal, Volume 157, Issue 5, article id. 202, 25 pp., May 2019


The most dramatic phases of terrestrial planet formation are thought to be oligarchic and chaotic growth, on timescales of up to 100─200 Myr, when violent impacts occur between large planetesimals of sizes up to protoplanets. Such events are marked by the production of large amounts of debris, as has been observed in some exceptionally bright and young debris disks (termed extreme debris disks). Here we report five years of Spitzer measurements of such systems around two young solar-type stars: ID8 and P1121. The short-term (weekly to monthly) and long-term (yearly) disk variability is consistent with the aftermaths of large impacts involving large asteroid-sized bodies. We demonstrate that an impact-produced clump of optically thick dust, under the influence of the dynamical and viewing geometry effects, can produce short-term modulation in the disk light curves. The long-term disk flux variation is related to the collisional evolution within the impact-produced fragments once released into a circumstellar orbit. The time-variable behavior observed in the P1121 system is consistent with a hypervelocity impact prior to 2012 that produced vapor condensates as the dominant impact product. Two distinct short-term modulations in the ID8 system suggest two violent impacts at different times and locations. Its long-term variation is consistent with the collisional evolution of two different populations of impact-produced debris dominated by either vapor condensates or escaping boulders. The bright, variable emission from the dust produced in large impacts from extreme debris disks provides a unique opportunity to study violent events during the era of terrestrial planet formation.

Lunar Crater Identification via Deep Learning

Ari Silburt*, Mohamad Ali-Dib, Chenchong Zhu, Alan P. Jackson, Diana Valencia, Yevgeni Kissin, Daniel Tamayo, Kristen Menou
Journal PaperIcarus, Volume 317, pages 27-38, January 2019


Crater counting on the Moon and other bodies is crucial to constrain the dynamical history of the Solar System. This has traditionally been done by visual inspection of images, thus limiting the scope, efficiency, and/or accuracy of retrieval. In this paper we demonstrate the viability of using convolutional neural networks (CNNs) to determine the positions and sizes of craters from a Lunar digital elevation map (DEM). We recover 92% of craters from the human-generated test set and almost double the total number of crater detections. Of these new craters, 15% are smaller in diameter than the minimum crater size in the ground-truth dataset. Our median fractional longitude, latitude and radius errors are 11% or less, representing good agreement with the human-generated datasets. From a manual inspection of 361 new craters we estimate the false positive rate of new craters to be 11%. Moreover, our Moon-trained CNN performs well when tested on DEM images of Mercury, detecting a large fraction of craters in each map. Our results suggest that deep learning will be a useful tool for rapidly and automatically extracting craters on various Solar System bodies. Code is publicly available via the links above

Early Lunar Crust Healed Itself After Impacts Punctured Holes

Viranga Perera, Alan P. Jackson
Conference Abstract The First Billion Years: Bombardment, held 30 September - 2 October 2018 in Flagstaff, Arizona, USA. LPI Contribution No. 2107, id.2027


We conducted a series of iSALE hydrocode simulations to model impacts onto the early Moon. This work will help identify the types of impacts that would have punctured the early crust and help us better understand the thermal evolution of the Moon.

Cratering and Penetration of the Early Lunar Crust

Viranga Perera, Alan P. Jackson, Linda T. Elkins-Tanton, Erik Asphaug, Travis S.J. Gabriel
Conference Abstract The First Billion Years: Bombardment, held 30 September - 2 October 2018 in Flagstaff, Arizona, USA. LPI Contribution No. 2107, id.2024


We conducted a series of iSALE hydrocode simulations to model impacts onto the early Moon. This work will help identify the types of impacts that would have punctured the early crust and help us better understand the thermal evolution of the Moon.

Short-Term Disk Flux Modulations due to the Orbital Evolution of Impact Produced Clouds of Dust in NGC2547-ID8

Kate Y. L. Su, Alan P. Jackson, Ruobing Dong, George Rieke, Andras Gaspar
Conference Abstract The First Billion Years: Bombardment, held 30 September - 2 October 2018 in Flagstaff, Arizona, USA. LPI Contribution No. 2107, id.2025


We showed that the short-term disk modulations observed in the ID8 system are due to the orbital evolution of an optically thick cloud produced by two impacts occurred at two different locations and time.

Observing Giant, Planet Forming Impacts in Exoplanetary Systems

Alan P. Jackson, Kate Y. L. Su, Ruobing Dong, George Rieke, Andras Gaspar
Conference Abstract The First Billion Years: Bombardment, held 30 September - 2 October 2018 in Flagstaff, Arizona, USA. LPI Contribution No. 2107, id.2019


We describe the complex light curves expected for optically thick dust clouds produced by giant impacts in extrasolar systems experiencing ongoing planet formation and discuss the information we can extract about the forming planetary system.

Effect of reimpacting debris on the solidification of the lunar magma ocean

Viranga Perera*, Alan P. Jackson, Linda T. Elkins-Tanton, Erik Asphaug
Journal Paper Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, Volume 123, Issue 5, pages 1168-1191, May 2018


Anorthosites that comprise the bulk of the lunar crust are believed to have formed during solidification of a lunar magma ocean (LMO) in which these rocks would have floated to the surface. This early flotation crust would have formed a thermal blanket over the remaining LMO, prolonging solidification. Geochronology of lunar anorthosites indicates a long timescale of LMO cooling, or remelting and recrystallization in one or more late events. To better interpret this geochronology, we model LMO solidification in a scenario where the Moon is being continuously bombarded by returning projectiles released from the Moon-forming giant impact. More than one lunar mass of material escaped the Earth-Moon system onto heliocentric orbits following the giant impact, much of it to come back on returning orbits for a period of 100 Myr. If large enough, these projectiles would have punctured holes in the nascent floatation crust of the Moon, exposing the LMO to space and causing more rapid cooling. We model these scenarios using a thermal evolution model of the Moon that allows for production (by cratering) and evolution (solidification and infill) of holes in the flotation crust that insulates the LMO. For effective hole production, solidification of the magma ocean can be significantly expedited, decreasing the cooling time by more than a factor of 5. If hole production is inefficient, but shock conversion of projectile kinetic energy to thermal energy is efficient, then LMO solidification can be somewhat prolonged, lengthening the cooling time by 50% or more.

Ejection of rocky and icy material from binary star systems: Implications for the origin and composition of 1I/`Oumuamua

Alan P. Jackson, Daniel Tamayo, Noah Hammond, Mohamad Ali-Dib, Hanno Rein
Conference Abstract 49th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, held 19-23 March 2018 at The Woodlands, Texas, USA. LPI contribution no. 2083, id. 1583


We suggest that rocky interstellar objects like 1I/`Oumuamua are likely predominantly sourced from intermediate mass (A or late B-type) binary star systems.

Ejection of rocky and icy material from binary star systems: Implications for the origin and composition of 1I/`Oumuamua

Alan P. Jackson, Daniel Tamayo, Noah Hammond, Mohamad Ali-Dib, Hanno Rein
Journal Paper Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society: Letters, Volume 478, Issue 1, pages L49-L53, March 2018


In single star systems like our own Solar system, comets dominate the mass budget of bodies that are ejected into interstellar space, since they form further away and are less tightly bound. However 1I/`Oumuamua, the first interstellar object detected, appears asteroidal in its spectra and in its lack of detectable activity. We argue that the galactic budget of interstellar objects like 1I/`Oumuamua should be dominated by planetesimal material ejected during planet formation in circumbinary systems, rather than in single star systems or widely separated binaries. We further show that in circumbinary systems, rocky bodies should be ejected in comparable numbers to icy ones. This suggests that a substantial fraction of additional interstellar objects discovered in the future should display an active coma. We find that the rocky population, of which 1I/`Oumuamua seems to be a member, should be predominantly sourced from A-type and late B-star binaries.

Constraints on the pre-impact orbits of Solar system giant impactors

Alan P. Jackson, Travis S.J. Gabriel*, Erik I. Asphaug
Journal Paper Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Volume 474, Issue 3, pages 2924-2936, March 2018


We provide a fast method for computing constraints on impactor pre-impact orbits, applying this to the late giant impacts in the Solar system. These constraints can be used to make quick, broad comparisons of different collision scenarios, identifying some immediately as low-probability events, and narrowing the parameter space in which to target follow-up studies with expensive N-body simulations. We benchmark our parameter space predictions, finding good agreement with existing N-body studies for the Moon. We suggest that high-velocity impact scenarios in the inner Solar system, including all currently proposed single impact scenarios for the formation of Mercury, should be disfavoured. This leaves a multiple hit-and-run scenario as the most probable currently proposed for the formation of Mercury.

Dynamical and biological panspermia constraints within multi-planet exosystems

Dimitri Veras, David J. Armstrong, James A. Blake, Jose F. Gutierrez-Marcos, Alan P. Jackson, Hendrik Schaefer
Journal Paper Astrobiology, Volume 18, Issue 9, pages 1106-1122, September 2018


As discoveries of multiple planets in the habitable zone of their parent star mount, developing analytical techniques to quantify extrasolar intra-system panspermia will become increasingly important. Here, we provide user-friendly prescriptions that describe the asteroid impact characteristics which would be necessary to transport life both inwards and outwards within these systems within a single framework. Our focus is on projectile generation and delivery and our expressions are algebraic, eliminating the need for the solution of differential equations. We derive a probability distribution function for life-bearing debris to reach a planetary orbit, and describe the survival of micro-organisms during planetary ejection, their journey through interplanetary space, and atmospheric entry.

The Taurus Boundary of Stellar/Substellar (TBOSS) Survey. II. Disk Masses from ALMA Continuum Observations

Kimberley Ward-Duong*, Jennifer Patience, Joanna Bulger, Gerrit van der Plas, Francois Ménard, Christophe Pinte, Alan P. Jackson, Geoffrey Bryden, Neal J. Turner, Paul M. Harvey, Antonio Hales, Robert J. de Rosa
Journal Paper The Astronomical Journal, Volume 155, Issue 2, article 54, February 2018,


We report 885 μm ALMA continuum flux densities for 24 Taurus members spanning the stellar/substellar boundary with spectral types from M4 to M7.75. Of the 24 systems, 22 are detected at levels ranging from 1.0 to 55.7 mJy. The two nondetections are transition disks, though other transition disks in the sample are detected. Converting ALMA continuum measurements to masses using standard scaling laws and radiative transfer modeling yields dust mass estimates ranging from ∼0.3 to 20 M. The dust mass shows a declining trend with central object mass when combined with results from submillimeter surveys of more massive Taurus members. The substellar disks appear as part of a continuous sequence and not a distinct population. Compared to older Upper Sco members with similar masses across the substellar limit, the Taurus disks are brighter and more massive. Both Taurus and Upper Sco populations are consistent with an approximately linear relationship in Mdust to Mstar, although derived power-law slopes depend strongly upon choices of stellar evolutionary model and dust temperature relation. The median disk around early-M stars in Taurus contains a comparable amount of mass in small solids as the average amount of heavy elements in Kepler planetary systems on short-period orbits around M-dwarf stars, with an order of magnitude spread in disk dust mass about the median value. Assuming a gas-to-dust ratio of 100:1, only a small number of low-mass stars and brown dwarfs have a total disk mass amenable to giant planet formation, consistent with the low frequency of giant planets orbiting M dwarfs.

Disk Properties Across the Stellar/Substellar Boundary and Implications for Planet Formation and Detection of Planets Around M-Stars

Kimberley Ward-Duong*, Jennifer Patience, Joanna Bulger, Gerrit van der Plas, Francois Ménard, Christophe Pinte, Alan P. Jackson, Geoffrey Bryden, Neal J. Turner, Paul M. Harvey, Antonio Hales, Robert J. de Rosa
Conference Abstract Habitable Worlds 2017: A system science workshop, held 13-17 November 2017 in Laramie, Wyoming, USA. LPI contribution no. 2042 id. 4104


We report 885μm ALMA submm fluxes for 24 low mass Taurus members. The dust mass declines with object mass, and a number of targets have resolved disks. Based on standard gas:dust mass estimates, very few disks are amenable to giant planet formation.

Expedited Cooling of the Lunar Magma Ocean Due to Impacts

Viranga Perera*, Alan P. Jackson, Travis S.J. Gabriel*, Linda T. Elkins-Tanton, Erik I. Asphaug
Conference Abstract 48th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, held 20-24 March 2017 at The Woodlands, Texas, USA. LPI contribution no. 1964 id. 2524


Impacts puncturing holes into the nascent lunar crust could have expedited the cooling of the lunar magma ocean.

Impacts into Thin Crust Overlying a Magma Ocean

Alan P. Jackson, Viranga Perera*, Travis S.J. Gabriel*, Linda T. Elkins-Tanton, Erik I. Asphaug
Conference Abstract 48th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, held 20-24 March 2017 at The Woodlands, Texas, USA. LPI contribution no. 1964 id. 2664


Impacts into thin crust overlying magma oceans produce thermal holes and extensive fracturing, profoundly altering the evolution of the magma ocean and crust.

Constraining the Pre-Impact Orbits of Solar System Giant Impactors

Alan P. Jackson, Travis S.J. Gabriel*, Erik I. Asphaug
Conference Abstract 48th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference, held 20-24 March 2017 at The Woodlands, Texas, USA. LPI contribution no. 1964 id. 2733


We demonstrate a fast method for computing the possible orbits of solar system giant impactors and discuss the consequences for their regions of origin.

How to design a planetary system for different scattering outcomes: giant impact sweet spot, maximizing exocomets, scattered discs

Mark C. Wyatt, Amy Bonsor, Alan P. Jackson, Sebastiano Marino*, Andrew Shannon
Journal Paper Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Volume 464, Issue 3, January 2017, pages 3385-3407,


This paper considers the dynamics of the scattering of planetesimals or planetary embryos by a planet on a circumstellar orbit. We classify six regions in the planet's mass versus semimajor axis parameter space according to the dominant outcome for scattered objects: ejected, accreted, remaining, escaping, Oort Cloud, and depleted Oort Cloud. We use these outcomes to consider which planetary system architectures maximize the observability of specific signatures, given that signatures should be detected first around systems with optimal architectures (if such systems exist in nature). Giant impact debris is most readily detectable for 0.1-10 M planets at 1-5 au, depending on the detection method and spectral type. While A stars have putative giant impact debris at 4-6 au consistent with this sweet spot, that of FGK stars is typically ≪1 au contrary to expectations; an absence of 1-3 au giant impact debris could indicate a low frequency of terrestrial planets there. Three principles maximize the cometary influx from exo-Kuiper belts: a chain of closely separated planets interior to the belt, none of which is a Jupiter-like ejector; planet masses not increasing strongly with distance (for a net inward torque on comets); and ongoing replenishment of comets, possibly by embedded low-mass planets. A high Oort Cloud comet influx requires no ejectors and architectures that maximize the Oort Cloud population. Cold debris discs are usually considered classical Kuiper belt analogues. Here we consider the possibility of detecting scattered disc analogues, which could be betrayed by a broad radial profile and lack of small grains, as well as spherical 100-1000 au mini-Oort Clouds. Some implications for escaping planets around young stars, detached planets akin to Sedna, and the formation of super-Earths are also discussed.

Gas and dust around A-type stars at tens of Myr: signatures of cometary break-up

Jane S. Greaves, W.S. Holland, Brenda C. Matthews, Jonathan P. Marshall, William R.F. Dent, P. Woitke, Mark C. Wyatt, Luca Matra*, Alan P. Jackson
Journal Paper Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 2016, in Press


Discs of dusty debris around main-sequence stars indicate fragmentation of orbiting planetesimals, and for a few A-type stars, a gas component is also seen that may come from collisionally-released volatiles. Here we find the sixth example of a CO-hosting disc, around the ∼30 Myr-old A0-star HD 32997. Two more of these CO-hosting stars, HD 21997 and 49 Cet, have also been imaged in dust with SCUBA-2 within the SONS project. A census of 27 A-type debris hosts within 125 pc now shows 7/16 detections of carbon-bearing gas within the 5-50 Myr epoch, with no detections in 11 older systems. Such a prolonged period of high fragmentation rates corresponds quite well to the epoch when most of the Earth was assembled from planetesimal collisions. Recent models propose that collisional products can be spatially asymmetric if they originate at one location in the disc, with CO particularly exhibiting this behaviour as it can photodissociate in less than an orbital period. Of the six CO-hosting systems, only β Pic is in clear support of this hypothesis. However, radiative transfer modelling with the ProDiMo code shows that the CO is also hard to explain in a proto-planetary disc context.

The spherical Brazil Nut Effect and its significance to asteroids

Viranga Perera*, Alan P. Jackson, Erik Asphaug, Ronald-Louis Ballouz*
Journal Paper Icarus, Volume 278, 1 November 2016, Pages 194-203


Many asteroids are likely rubble-piles that are a collection of smaller objects held together by gravity and possibly cohesion. These asteroids are seismically shaken by impacts, which leads to excitation of their constituent particles. As a result it has been suggested that their surfaces and sub-surface interiors may be governed by a size sorting mechanism known as the Brazil Nut Effect. We study the behavior of a model asteroid that is a spherical, self-gravitating aggregate with a binary size-distribution of particles under the action of applied seismic shaking. We find that above a seismic threshold, larger particles rise to the surface when friction is present, in agreement with previous studies that focussed on cylindrical and rectangular box configurations. Unlike previous works we also find that size sorting takes place even with zero friction, though the presence of friction does aid the sorting process above the seismic threshold. Additionally we find that while strong size sorting can take place near the surface, the innermost regions remain unsorted under even the most vigorous shaking.

Insights into planet formation from debris disks: II. Giant impacts in extrasolar planetary systems

Mark C. Wyatt, Alan P. Jackson
Book Chapter The disk in relation to the formation of planets and their proto-atmospheres, International Space Science Institute (ISSI), 2016
Journal Paper Space Science Reviews, Volume 205, Issue 1, December 2016, pages 231-265


Giant impacts refer to collisions between two objects each of which is massive enough to be considered at least a planetary embryo. The putative collision suffered by the proto-Earth that created the Moon is a prime example, though most Solar System bodies bear signatures of such collisions. Current planet formation models predict that an epoch of giant impacts may be inevitable, and observations of debris around other stars are providing mounting evidence that giant impacts feature in the evolution of many planetary systems. This chapter reviews giant impacts, focussing on what we can learn about planet formation by studying debris around other stars. Giant impact debris evolves through mutual collisions and dynamical interactions with planets. General aspects of this evolution are outlined, noting the importance of the collision-point geometry. The detectability of the debris is discussed using the example of the Moon-forming impact. Such debris could be detectable around another star up to 10 Myr post-impact, but model uncertainties could reduce detectability to a few 100 yr window. Nevertheless the 3% of young stars with debris at levels expected during terrestrial planet formation provide valuable constraints on formation models; implications for super-Earth formation are also discussed. Variability recently observed in some bright disks promises to illuminate the evolution during the earliest phases when vapour condensates may be optically thick and acutely affected by the collision-point geometry. The outer reaches of planetary systems may also exhibit signatures of giant impacts, such as the clumpy debris structures seen around some stars.

Extreme, variable debris disks produced by giant impacts during terrestrial planet formation

Alan P. Jackson
Conference Abstract European planetary science congress (EPSC), held 27 September - 2 October, 2015 in Nantes, France. id. EPSC2015-794


Giant impacts between planetary scale bodies release large quantities of debris into their host systems. This debris, especially vapour condensates, may be extremely bright and optically thick. The variation in the shape of the dust cloud as it orbits the star, and undergoes Keplerian shear, can lead to large variations in the optical thickness, and consequent large variations in the observed flux, producing complex light-curves. By studying the light-curves of these extreme debris disks we can gain a powerful probe into the properties of the forming planets in the system.

Stop Hitting Yourself: Did most Terrestrial Impactors Originate from the Terrestrial Planets?

Alan P. Jackson, Erik Asphaug, Linda Elkins-Tanton, David A. Minton
Conference Abstract Workshop on Early Solar System Impact Bombardment III, held 4-5 February, 2015 in Houston, Texas. LPI Contribution No. 1826, p.3036


In addition to building planets giant impacts also release large quantities of debris. The ultimate fate of this is largely re-accretion, and this debris population could be the dominant source of impactors in the early solar system.

Debris from Borealis Basin Formation as the Primary Impactor Population of Late Heavy Bombardment

David A. Minton, Alan P. Jackson, Erik Asphaug, Caleb I. Fassett, Jim E. Richardson
Conference Abstract Workshop on Early Solar System Impact Bombardment III, held 4-5 February, 2015 in Houston, Texas. LPI Contribution No. 1826, p.3033


Here we investigate a novel Giant Impact Debris (GID) hypothesis to explain a number of observations regarding the LHB. In the GID hypothesis, the formation of the crustal dichotomy on Mars (Borealis Basin) generates LHB impactors.

The Earliest Lunar Bombardment Produced by Moon-Forming Impact Ejecta

William F. Bottke, David A. Vokrouhlicky, Simone Marchi, Alan P. Jackson, Hal Levison, Tim Swindle
Conference Abstract Workshop on Early Solar System Impact Bombardment III, held 4-5 February, 2015 in Houston, Texas. LPI Contribution No. 1826, p.3012


The giant impact that formed the Moon ejected several percent of an Earth mass out of cis-lunar space in the form of small debris. Using collisional and dynamical models, we show its return can reproduce the Moon’s pre-Nectarian impact record.

Eight billion asteroids in the Oort cloud

Andrew Shannon, Alan P. Jackson, Dimitri Veras, Mark C. Wyatt
Journal Paper Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Volume 446, Issue 2, January 2015, Pages 2059-2064


The Oort cloud is usually thought of as a collection of icy comets inhabiting the outer reaches of the Solar system, but this picture is incomplete. We use simulations of the formation of the Oort cloud to show that ~4 per cent of the small bodies in the Oort cloud should have formed within 2.5 au of the Sun, and hence be ice-free rock-iron bodies. If we assume that these Oort cloud asteroids have the same size distribution as their cometary counterparts, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope should find roughly a dozen Oort cloud asteroids during 10 years of operations. Measurement of the asteroid fraction within the Oort cloud can serve as an excellent test of the Solar system's formation and dynamical history. Oort cloud asteroids could be of particular concern as impact hazards as their high mass density, high impact velocity, and low visibility make them both hard to detect and hard to divert or destroy. However, they should be a rare class of object, and we estimate globally catastrophic collisions should only occur about once per billion years.

Molecular gas clumps from the destruction of icy bodies in the β Pictoris debris disk

W.R.F. Dent, M.C. Wyatt, A. Roberge, J.-C. Augereau, S. Casassus, S. Corder, J.S. Greaves, I. de Gregorio-Monsalvo, A. Hales, A.P. Jackson, A. Meredith Hughes, A.-M. Lagrange, B. Matthews, D. Wilner
Journal Paper Science, Volume 343, Issue 6178, March 2014, Pages 1490-1492


Many stars are surrounded by disks of dusty debris formed in the collisions of asteroids, comets, and dwarf planets, but is gas also released in such events? Observations at submillimeter wavelengths of the archetypal debris disk around β Pictoris show that 0.3% of a Moon mass of carbon monoxide orbits in its debris belt. The gas distribution is highly asymmetric, with 30% found in a single clump 85 astronomical units from the star, in a plane closely aligned with the orbit of the inner planet, β Pictoris b. This gas clump delineates a region of enhanced collisions, either from a mean motion resonance with an unseen giant planet or from the remnants of a collision of Mars-mass planets.

Debris from giant impacts between planetary embryos at large orbital radii

Alan P. Jackson, Mark C. Wyatt, Amy Bonsor, Dimitri Veras
Journal Paper Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Volume 440, Issue 4, June 2014, Pages 3757-3777


We consider the observational signatures of giant impacts between planetary embryos. While the debris released in the impact remains in a clump for only a single orbit, there is a much longer lasting asymmetry caused by the fact that all debris must pass through the collision-point. The resulting asymmetry is stationary, it does not orbit the star. The debris is concentrated in a clump at the collision-point, with a more diffuse structure on the opposite side. The asymmetry lasts for typically around 1000 orbital periods of the progenitor, which can be several Myr at distances of ~50 au. We describe how the appearance of the asymmetric disc depends on the mass and eccentricity of the progenitor, as well as viewing orientation. The wavelength of observation, which determines the grain sizes probed, is also important. Notably, the increased collision rate of the debris at the collision-point makes this the dominant production site for any secondary dust and gas created. For dust small enough to be removed by radiation pressure, and gas with a short lifetime, this causes their distribution to resemble a jet emanating from the (stationary) collision-point. We suggest that the asymmetries seen at large separations in some debris discs, like Beta Pictoris, could be the result of giant impacts. If so, this would indicate that planetary embryos are present and continuing to grow at several tens of au at ages of up to tens of Myr.

Light from Shattered Worlds: Debris from Giant Impacts

Alan P. Jackson, Mark C. Wyatt, William R.F. Dent, Aki Roberge
Conference Abstract Exploring the Formation and Evolution of Planetary Systems, Proceedings of the International Astronomical Union, IAU Symposium, Volume 299, pp. 344-345


Large impacts in the outer parts of a planetary system will produce debris discs that display a strong, distinctive, asymmetry, which will last for 105 year timescales. Debris resulting from a large impact may be able to explain the asymmetries in some known debris discs that have hitherto been difficult to understand.

Debris from terrestrial planet formation: the Moon-forming collision

Alan P. Jackson, Mark C. Wyatt
Journal Paper Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Volume 425, Issue 1, September 2012, Pages 657-679


We study the evolution of debris created in the giant impacts expected during the final stages of terrestrial planet formation. The starting point is the debris created in a simulation of the Moon-forming impact. The dynamical evolution is followed for 10 Myr including the effects of Earth, Venus, Mars and Jupiter. The spatial distribution evolves from a clump in the first few months to an asymmetric ring for the first 10 kyr and finally becoming an axisymmetric ring by about 1 Myr after the impact. By 10 Myr after the impact 20 per cent of the particles have been accreted on to Earth and 17 per cent on to Venus, with 8 per cent ejected by Jupiter and other bodies playing minor roles. However, the fate of the debris also depends strongly on how fast it is collisionally depleted, which depends on the poorly constrained size distribution of the impact debris. Assuming that the debris is made up of 30 per cent by mass mm-cm-sized vapour condensates and 70 per cent boulders up to 500 km, we find that the condensates deplete rapidly on ~1000 yr time-scales, whereas the boulders deplete predominantly dynamically. By considering the luminosity of dust produced in collisions within the boulder-debris distribution we find that the Moon-forming impact would have been readily detectable around other stars in Spitzer 24 μm surveys for around 25 Myr after the impact, with levels of emission comparable to many known hot dust systems. The vapour condensates meanwhile produce a short-lived, optically thick, spike of emission. We use these surveys to make an estimate of the fraction of stars that form terrestrial planets, FTPF. Since current terrestrial planet formation models invoke multiple giant impacts, the low fraction of 10-100 Myr stars found to have warm (>~150 K) dust implies that FTPF≲10 per cent. For this number to be higher, it would require that either terrestrial planets are largely fully formed when the protoplanetary disc disperses, or that impact generated debris consists purely of sub-km objects such that its signature is short-lived.

Planetary evaporation by UV & X-ray radiation: basic hydrodynamics

James E. Owen, Alan P. Jackson
Journal Paper Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Volume 425, Issue 4, October 2012, Pages 2931-2947


We consider the evaporation of close-in planets by the star's intrinsic extreme-ultraviolet (EUV) and X-ray radiation. We calculate evaporation rates by solving the hydrodynamical problem for planetary evaporation including heating from both X-ray and EUV radiation. We show that most close-in planets (a < 0.1 au) are evaporating hydrodynamically, with the evaporation occurring in two distinct regimes: X-ray driven, in which the X-ray heated flow contains a sonic point, and EUV driven, in which the X-ray region is entirely sub-sonic. The mass-loss rates scale as LX/a2 for X-ray driven evaporation, and as Φ*1/2/a for EUV driven evaporation at early times, with mass-loss rates of the order of 1010-1014 g s-1. No exact scaling exists for the mass-loss rate with planet mass and planet radius; however, in general evaporation proceeds more rapidly for planets with lower densities and higher masses. Furthermore, we find that in general the transition from X-ray driven to EUV driven evaporation occurs at lower X-ray luminosities for planets closer to their parent stars and for planets with lower densities.

Coupling our evaporation models to the evolution of the high-energy radiation - which falls with time - we are able to follow the evolution of evaporating planets. We find that most planets start off evaporating in the X-ray driven regime, but switch to EUV driven once the X-ray luminosity falls below a critical value. The evolution models suggest that while 'hot Jupiters' are evaporating, they are not evaporating at a rate sufficient to remove the entire gaseous envelope on Gyr time-scales. However, we do find that close in Neptune mass planets are more susceptible to complete evaporation of their envelopes. Thus we conclude that planetary evaporation is more important for lower mass planets, particularly those in the 'hot Neptune'/'super Earth' regime.

The coronal X-ray-age relation and its implications for the evaporation of exoplanets

Alan P. Jackson, Timothy A. Davis, Peter J. Wheatley
Journal Paper Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, Volume 422, Issue 3, May 2012, Pages 2024-2043


We study the relationship between coronal X-ray emission and stellar age for late-type stars, and the variation of this relationship with spectral type. We select 717 stars from 13 open clusters and find that the ratio of X-ray to bolometric luminosity during the saturated phase of coronal emission decreases from 10-3.1 for late K dwarfs to 10-4.3 for early-F-type stars [across the range 0.29 ≤ (B-V)0 < 1.41]. Our determined saturation time-scales vary between 107.8 and 108.3 yr, though with no clear trend across the whole FGK range. We apply our X-ray emission-age relations to the investigation of the evaporation history of 121 known transiting exoplanets using a simple energy-limited model of evaporation and taking into consideration Roche lobe effects and different heating/evaporation efficiencies. We confirm that a linear cut-off of the planet distribution in the M2/R3 versus a-2 plane is an expected result of population modification by evaporation and show that the known transiting exoplanets display such a cut-off. We find that for an evaporation efficiency of 25 per cent we expect around one in ten of the known transiting exoplanets to have lost ≥5 per cent of their mass since formation. In addition we provide estimates of the minimum formation mass for which a planet could be expected to survive for 4 Gyr for a range of stellar and planetary parameters. We emphasize the importance of the earliest periods of a planet's life for its evaporation history with 75 per cent expected to occur within the first Gyr. This raises the possibility of using evaporation histories to distinguish between different migration mechanisms. For planets with spin-orbit angles available from measurements of the Rossiter-McLaughlin effect, no difference is found between the distributions of planets with misaligned orbits and those with aligned orbits. This suggests that dynamical effects accounting for misalignment occur early in the life of the planetary system, although additional data are required to test this.

Image credit: NASA/ESA, the debris disk around Fomalhaut as seen in scattered light by the STIS instrument on the Hubble Space Telescope

  • image

    'Oumuamua likely came from a binary system

    Interstellar asteroid that recently flew past Earth likely came from a system with two stars

    Research paper Ejection of rocky and icy material from binary star systems: Implications for the origin and composition of 1I/'Oumuamua, authors Alan P. Jackson, Daniel Tamayo, Noah Hammond, Mohamad Ali-Dib, Hanno Rein

    published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society: Letters, March 2018

    Press releases by the University of Toronto, and the Royal Astronomical Society

    This was covered quite widely in the press, including The Associated Press, CBC News, The Guardian, and The Daily Mail

    Discovered on 19th October 2017 by the Pan-STARRS 1 telescope at Haleakala Observatory in Hawai'i, 'Oumuamua is an intriguing object. With an eccentricity of 1.2 and travelling at around 26 km/s relative to the Solar system it is the first confirmed body of interstellar origin to pass through the Solar system. In addition it is highly elongated, as can be seen in the artist's impression, and has displayed no detectable coma or tail-like activity, despite having passed within 0.25 AU of the Sun (within the orbit of Mercury), making it a volatile-poor asteroid rather than an ice-rich comet. It was this latter point that particularly interested me and my colleagues at the University of Toronto.

    The overwhelming majority of objects that are ejected from our own Solar system out into interstellar space are icy comets that originate from the outer regions like the Kuiper belt, not the inner parts of the Solar system where rocky asteroids are found. This is because the dominant contributors to ejecting material from the Solar system are Neptune and Jupiter, which are themselves in those outer regions. To be more efficient at ejecting material from the warm, inner regions we need a system with a different architecture to ours, one that has a large body in the inner regions. A Jupiter like planet in the inner parts of the system would work, but planet surveys have told us that Jupiter-like planets close to their parent stars are not very common. Binary stars on the other hand are common, with something like half of all stars being members of a binary or multiple star system. Moreover the companion star is there right from the very beginning of the life of the system, so material can start being ejected as soon as planetesimals form, rather than having to wait until a large planet can be formed. As such we found that material ejected from binary stars should dominate the population of interstellar bodies, especially for rocky ones like 'Oumuamua, which then means that 'Oumuamua most likely was born in a binary star system.

    Image credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser, artist's impression of 1I/'Oumuamua

Image Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser, artists impression of 1I/'Oumuamua

Current and Former Students

Viranga Perera

Graduated Nov 2017 -> Postdoc at JHU-APL

+ Website

Travis Gabriel

Graduated July 2019 -> Postdoc at ASU

+ Website

Viranga Perera

Graduated Nov 2017 -> Postdoc at JHU-APL

+ Website

Travis Gabriel

Graduated July 2019 -> Postdoc at ASU

+ Website

During my first stint at Arizona State University I was fortunate to meet and work with two graduate students, Viranga Perera and Travis Gabriel, who continue to work with me on several projects.

Viranga Perera successfully defended his PhD thesis at Arizona State University in November 2017 and is now a postdoctoral researcher at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. Viranga worked with me on several projects during his time at ASU. Firstly, examining granular mechanics on asteroids, specifically the so-called 'Brazil nut effect' in which larger particles rise to the surface of a mixture as it is shaken, to examine the influence this could have on the internal structure of asteroids. Later, he also worked with me on the Stop Hitting Yourself project, focussing on the influence re-impacting debris might have on the cooling of the Moon and formation of the lunar crust and we continue to collaborate on lunar projects

Travis Gabriel successfully defended his PhD thesis at ASU in July 2019 and is currently still at ASU as a postdoctoral researcher. Travis has worked with me on both the Aftermath of Giant Impacts and Stop Hitting Yourself projects. For the Aftermath of Giant impacts he constructed a new and improved empirical relationship for the mass of the largest remnant produced in a giant impact, while for the Stop Hitting Yourself project he has been assisting with the investigation of debris dynamics.

I encourage you to visit their own websites to learn more, and about their other projects!


  • 2015 2015

    Terrestrial planet formation (GLG-598)

    Terrestrial planet formation is a very active field, and the formation of Earth and other planets has undergone a revolution in terms of solar system theories and extrasolar planetary exploration. In this course students learnt how we think the planets formed as dynamical, physical, and thermodynamical systems, with an emphasis on the physical process of accretion and its clues in geochemistry, planetary structure and orbital architecture. The course was quantitative and included regular problem sets and reading assignments, culminating in a short research paper or literature review and a final written exam.

    2013 2011

    Astrophysical fluid dynamics - Supervisor

    My role as a supervisor was to go through the solutions to the weekly problem sets with the students in groups of 2-3.

    Fluids are ubiquitous in the Universe on all scales. As well as obvious fluids (e.g. the gas that is in stars or clouds in the interstellar medium) a variety of other systems are amenable to a fluid dynamical description - including the dust that makes up the rings of Saturn and even the orbits of stars in the galactic potential. Although some of the techniques of conventional (terrestrial) fluid dynamics are relevant to astrophysical fluids, there are some important differences: astronomical objects are often self-gravitating or else may be accelerated by powerful gravitational fields to highly supersonic velocities. In the latter case, the flows are highly compressible and strong shock fronts are often observed (for example, the spiral shocks that are so prominent in the gas of galaxies like the Milky Way).

    In this course, we consider a wide range of topical issues in astronomy, such as the propagation of supernova shock waves through the interstellar medium, the internal structure of stars and the variety of instabilities that affect interstellar/intergalactic gas. These include, perhaps most importantly, the Jeans instability whose action is responsible for the formation of every star and galaxy in the Universe. We also deal with exotic astronomical environments, such as the orbiting discs of gas which feed black holes.

Image credit: Alan Jackson, Merton College, Oxford - rear of Fellows quad


I am always happy to talk to you if you have questions about my research or the field in general.


At My Office

My office is room 526 in the Bateman Physical Sciences Center, F-wing, located on the ASU Tempe campus

If I am not in my office, just drop me an email and I will get back to you as soon as I can.

Image credit: Arizona State University, Hayden library lawn