Planetesimal formation by gravitational instability

Andrew N. Youdin, Frank H. Shu

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

327 Scopus citations


We investigate the formation of planetesimals via the gravitational instability of solids that have settled to the midplane of a circumstellar disk. Vertical shear between the gas and a subdisk of solids induces turbulent mixing that inhibits gravitational instability. Working in the limit of small, well-coupled particles, we find that the mixing becomes ineffective when the surface density ratio of solids to gas exceeds a critical value. Solids in excess of this precipitation limit can undergo midplane gravitational instability and form planetesimals. However, this saturation effect typically requires increasing the local ratio of solid to gaseous surface density by factors of 2-10 times cosmic abundances, depending on the exact properties of the gas disk. We discuss existing astrophysical mechanisms for augmenting the ratio of solids to gas in protoplanetary disks by such factors and investigate a particular process that depends on the radial variations of orbital drift speeds induced by gas drag. This mechanism can concentrate millimeter-sized chondrules to the supercritical surface density in ≤ few × 10 6 yr, a suggestive timescale for the disappearance of dusty disks around T Tauri stars. We discuss the relevance of our results to some outstanding puzzles in planet formation theory - the size of the observed solar system and the rapid type I migration of Earth-mass bodies.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)494-505
Number of pages12
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number1 I
StatePublished - Nov 20 2002
Externally publishedYes


  • Instabilities
  • Planetary systems: formation
  • Planetary systems: protoplanetary disks
  • Turbulence

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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