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How do asteroids, comets and other stuff stay together when colliding in the empty vacuum of space, when they are made up of non-sticky substances like rock?

My understanding is that the force of gravity from small objects is very weak and when travelling at speed I don’t see how they join together.

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  • $\begingroup$ +1 for a perfectly reasonable and clear question about a very interesting topic in solar system formation and evolution! Considering there's already one good answer, there's no reason to close this. $\endgroup$ – uhoh Feb 29 at 0:52
  • $\begingroup$ For instance two clay masses might adhere upon collision. This is not due to their mutual attraction. This is recurrent in this site. Gravity is the major force driving gathering of matter but it is not the only one. A mountain does not stay togheter because of gravity. $\endgroup$ – Alchimista Feb 29 at 9:35
  • $\begingroup$ Many thanks for your response and I understand sufficiently the explanation but it’s not quite there for me. I believe the Kyper belt is a mass of rock in the outer solar system still orbiting around the sun but there’s little evidence of these rocks clumping together to form anything other than what they are and the rings of Saturn are not joining together to grow in size and when the moon hit the earth and bounced of into orbit it didn’t stick together so has the earth always been this size with a few additions. I know most the Earth was molten at one time but that was after its formation. $\endgroup$ – John Feb 29 at 13:42
  • $\begingroup$ The Earth became molten during its formation, mostly from the kinetic energy of impacts being converted to heat (some heat was also due to radioactive decay). $\endgroup$ – PM 2Ring Mar 1 at 11:37
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All these objects are rocky, also the icy ones given the low temparatures at their usual orbits. Your observation is also correct, that mutual collisions at usual orbital velocities in today's solar system tend to be catastrophic among the remaining small objects (comets, asteroids, KBOs etc); that is even true when you consider that usual collision velocities are smaller than orbital velocities as most objects rotate prograde and only objects in similar orbits collide with approx. differential Keplerian velocities. The objects don't grow anymore today.

The collisions you likely refer to occur during planet formation. Planet formation happens concurrent to star formation inside the star's accretion disk which evolves into a protoplanetary disk around the pre-main sequence star. This protoplanetary disk consists of both, gas and solid particles (mass ratio ~100:1) so that motion of the objects is not in vacuum but influenced by the gas - the smaller the more. The outcome (sticking, bouncing, fragmentation) of mutual collisions depends on what the particles look like (how porous or compact) and what is their relative size which defines for small particles their collision speed. You can extend these physics to larger particles until they reach a size at which their motion decouples from the gas. Then likely processes kick-in which combine the motion of gas and interaction with collective behaviour of these 'pebbles' (like disk turbulence, streaming instability which forms zones or vortices in the protoplanetary disk in which the small bodies can amass and gently collide to form big bodies, etc), so that these pebbles agglomerate to larger bodies, the so-called planetesimals which are of a few km-size like today's comets.

These bodies are big enough that they are only little affected by gas - the bigger the less drag compared to their mass they experience and thus will rotate with Keplarian speed around the being-born star - and catching up with smaller bodies in the same or very similar orbit, so that they gather them to form even bigger bodies. Thus a few 'lucky winners' will experience run-away growth, collecting the smaller bodies in their orbital distance which increases even more the bigger they become as gravity will start to play a role. The star enters main sequence and the emerging solar wind will push out the gas of the disk so that a debris disk, thus big particles, planetesimals and protoplanets remain, entering the phase of late heavy bombardment where many small bodies collide with the bigger bodies, effectively clearing especially the inner part of the solar system from many small bodies (as the collision timescale is particularily short)

Many, many details have been left-out here, of course and in parts it may even be over-simplified.

So in essence: what you see in the videos only works because there is still gas which slows down things - and because stuff is in similar orbits and thus their relative velocity is small so that gravity is NOT overcome by the shattered bodies when they collide.

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  • $\begingroup$ @John, please do not accept this answer. It has many faults. $\endgroup$ – David Hammen Feb 29 at 10:26
  • $\begingroup$ Care to elaborate? $\endgroup$ – planetmaker Feb 29 at 11:43
  • $\begingroup$ As a starter, you have the late heavy bombardment very wrong. If that did happen (this is now in doubt), it happened 400 million years after the planets had formed and did not contribute in any meaningful way to the inner planets' masses. $\endgroup$ – David Hammen Feb 29 at 19:10
  • $\begingroup$ You appear to be conflating two opposing theories into one, the nebular hypothesis and the gravitational instability hypothesis. Perhaps the right answer is indeed a meld, but then again it might be something very different. The one thing that is known is that both hypotheses have big problems, problems that have become bigger with the large number of star systems with planets that have been discovered in the last 20 years or so. $\endgroup$ – David Hammen Feb 29 at 19:20
  • $\begingroup$ You have completely glossed over a very key problem that no hypothesis to date has solved, other than the "and then magic happens" hypothesis. This is the problem of explaining how objects grow from a few centimeters across to multiple kilometers across. By all rights, such objects should spiral into the central star in a few hundred years. But they obviously don't because we have our solar system and we have seen many other star systems with exoplanets. $\endgroup$ – David Hammen Feb 29 at 19:32

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