Final stages of planet formation

Peter Goldreich*, Yoram Lithwick, Re'em Sari

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

162 Scopus citations


We address three questions regarding solar system planets: What determined their number? Why are their orbits nearly circular and coplanar? How long did they take to form? Runaway accretion in a disk of small bodies resulted in a tiny fraction of the bodies growing much larger than all the others. These big bodies dominated the viscous stirring of all bodies. Dynamical friction by small bodies cooled the random velocities of the big ones. Random velocities of small bodies were cooled by mutual collisions and/or gas drag. Runaway accretion terminated when the orbital separations of the big bodies became as wide as their feeding zones. This was followed by oligarchic growth during which the big bodies maintained similar masses and uniformly spaced semimajor axes. As the oligarchs grew, their number density decreased, but their surface mass density increased. We depart from standard treatments of planet formation by assuming that as the big bodies got bigger, the small ones got smaller as the result of undergoing a collisional fragmentation cascade. It follows that oligarchy was a brief stage in solar system evolution. When the oligarchs' surface mass density matched that of the small bodies, dynamical friction was no longer able to balance viscous stirring, so their velocity dispersion increased to the extent that their orbits crossed. This marked the end of oligarchy. What happened next differed in the inner and outer parts of the planetary system. In the inner part, where the ratios of the escape velocities from the surfaces of the planets to the escape velocities from their orbits are smaller than unity, big bodies collided and coalesced after their random velocities became comparable to their escape velocities. In the outer part, where these ratios are larger than unity, the random velocities of some of the big bodies continued to rise until they were ejected. In both parts, the number density of the big bodies eventually decreased to the extent that gravitational interactions among them no longer produced large-scale chaos. After that their orbital eccentricities and inclinations were damped by dynamical friction from the remaining small bodies. The last and longest stage in planet formation was the cleanup of small bodies. Our understanding of this stage is fraught with uncertainty. The surviving protoplanets cleared wide gaps around their orbits that inhibited their ability to accrete small bodies. Nevertheless, in the inner planet system, all of the material in the small bodies ended up inside planets. Small bodies in the outer planet system probably could not have been accreted in the age of the solar system. A second generation of planetesimals may have formed in the disk of small bodies, by either collisional coagulation or gravitational instability. In the outer planet system, bodies of kilometer size or larger would have had their random velocities excited until their orbits crossed those of neighboring protoplanets. Ultimately they would have either escaped from the Sun or become residents of the Oort Cloud. An important distinction is that growth of the inner planets continued through cleanup, whereas assembly of the outer planets was essentially complete by the end of oligarchy. These conclusions imply that the surface density of the protoplanetary disk was that of the minimum solar mass nebula in the inner planet region but a few times larger in the outer planet region. The timescale through cleanup was set by the accretion rate at the geometrical cross section in the inner planet region and by the ejection rate at the gravitationally enhanced cross section in the outer planet region. It was a few hundred million years in the former and a few billion years in the latter. However, since Uranus and Neptune acquired most of their mass by the end of oligarchy, they may have formed before Earth! A few implications of the above scenario are worth noting. Impacts among protoplanets of comparable size were common in the inner planet system but not in the outer. Ejections from the outer planet system included several bodies with masses in excess of Earth after oligarchy and an adequate number of kilometer-size bodies to populate the Oort comet cloud during cleanup. Except at the very end of cleanup, collisions prevented Uranus and Neptune from ejecting kilometer-size objects. Only Jupiter and, to a much lesser extent, Saturn were capable of populating the Oort Cloud with comets of kilometer size.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)497-507
Number of pages11
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number1 I
StatePublished - 10 Oct 2004
Externally publishedYes


  • Planetary systems: Protoplanetary disks
  • Solar system: Formation


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