On the formation of planetesimals via secular gravitational instabilities with turbulent stirring

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122 Scopus citations


We study the gravitational instability (GI) of small solids in a gas disk as a mechanism to form planetesimals. Dissipation from gas drag introduces secular GI, which proceeds even when standard GI criteria for a critical density or Toomre's Q predict stability. We include the stabilizing effects of turbulent diffusion, which suppresses small-scale GI. The radially wide rings that do collapse contain up to 0.1 Earth masses of solids. Subsequent fragmentation of the ring (not modeled here) would produce a clan of chemically homogenous planetesimals. Particle radial drift time scales (and, to a lesser extent, disk lifetimes and sizes) restrict the viability of secular GI to disks with weak turbulent diffusion, characterized by α ≲ 10-4. Thus, midplane dead zones are a preferred environment. Large solids with radii ≳10 cm collapse most rapidly because they partially decouple from the gas disk. Smaller solids, even below mm sizes, could collapse if particle-driven turbulence is weakened by either localized pressure maxima or super-solar metallicity. Comparison with simulations that include particle clumping by the streaming instability shows that our linear model underpredicts rapid, small-scale gravitational collapse. Thus, the inclusion of more detailed gas dynamics promotes the formation of planetesimals. We discuss relevant constraints from solar system and accretion disk observations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number99
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number2
StatePublished - Apr 20 2011
Externally publishedYes


  • hydrodynamics
  • instabilities
  • planets and satellites: formation
  • protoplanetary disks
  • turbulence

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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