# The role of gravity during planetesimal accretion

As far as I understand, during the formation of a planetary disc, grains of dust stick together due to collisions and chemical bonding. Considering the size of the grain - say, 1 mm - and the speed - 1cm per sec - it would seem that gravity plays a minor role during accretion. My question is, to what extent is gravity a factor during accretion? To what extent is it related to fragmentation? In other words - how does gravity affect whether the fragments return and stick to the main body? Is there a size barrier, or is it dependent only on the speed?

• what kind of fragmentation you are talking about Dec 23, 2014 at 14:50
• Dust / meteorite fragmentation due to collisions. I was wondering, in a collision between two objects of roughly similar sizes, how does gravity affect whether the fragments return and stick to the main body? Is there a size barrier, or is it dependant only on the speed?
– L.R.
Dec 23, 2014 at 14:54

The very first stage of planet formation involves purely inelastic (i.e., sticky) collisions between pairs of small particles of dust to make slightly larger particles of dust, pairwise collisions between these slightly larger particles to make even larger particles, and so on. So far, the only gravitation that comes into play is that of the central protostar and the disk as a whole. The gravitation of these little objects is very small.

Then some magic happens that makes the little rocks that result from this very first stage grow into planetesimals that do gravitate. How do little rocks (a few centimeters in diameter) grow into little planetesimals (a few hundred meters in diameter)? This is the key open problem in the theory of planet formation.

The core of the problem is that objects the size of a spec of dust to an object the size of a small pebble move with the gas that forms the bulk of the disk. The outward pressure from the gas in the disk makes the gas and small objects move at a slightly less than orbital speed. Once an object reaches the centimeter scale or so, the pressure from the gas no longer provides the support needed to keep those objects moving at that slightly suborbital speed. The objects start to become separated from the gas. By the time an object reaches a meter or so in diameter, the gas is equivalent to a hurricane force headwind.

One consequence of this is that collisions become ever more violent as objects grow beyond a centimeter in size, and hence are more likely to break colliding objects apart than to make them coalesce. An even bigger problem is that that headwind makes centimeter- to meter-sized objects spiral into the protostar, and very quickly (a few hundred years from 1 AU). A number of proposals have been put forth to overcome this meter barrier problem. So far, none appears to have stuck. (Sorry for the pun.)

Once objects reach some critical size, the drag from the gas reduces in importance thanks to the square-cube law and the gravitational attraction increases. That critical size varies from hundreds of meters to tens of kilometers, depending on which paper one reads (experts vary). These objects are "planetesimals," and there are lots of them. These once again combine readily to make planetary embryos. From then on, its just a mopping up process as gravitation either makes these planetesimals / planetary embryos combine or ejects them from the star system.

• Thank you, this is very useful! Do you mind if I quote you in my research paper?
– L.R.
Dec 24, 2014 at 8:59
• @L.R. - you are supposed to read and cite the articles Mr. Hammen summarized for you, with an acknowledgment at the beginning. Dec 24, 2014 at 18:55
• @L.R. - I concur with Deer Hunter. You shouldn't trust me any more than you should trust wikipedia as a source. I hinted at some keywords you could use in a search for your research article. I'll be even more helpful: Use a search engine to search for "meter-sized barrier in planet formation". Even better, do that search at [scholar.google.com](scholar.google.com). Dec 24, 2014 at 19:38