Debris disks detected in HST archival images of young stars, HD 141943 and HD 191089, using improved imaging processes (24 April 2014).[1]
486958 Arrokoth, the first pristine planetesimal visited by a spacecraft.

Planetesimals /plænɪˈtɛsɪməlz/ are solid objects thought to exist in protoplanetary disks and in debris disks. Per the Chamberlin–Moulton planetesimal hypothesis, they are believed to form out of cosmic dust grains.[dubious ] Believed to have formed about 4.6 billion years ago in the solar system, they are valuable in studies of the formation of it.


A widely accepted theory of planet formation, the so-called planetesimal hypotheses, the Chamberlin–Moulton planetesimal hypothesis and that of Viktor Safronov, states that planets form out of cosmic dust grains that collide and stick to form larger and larger bodies. When the bodies reach sizes of approximately one kilometer, then they can attract each other directly through their mutual gravity, enormously aiding further growth into moon-sized protoplanets. This is how planetesimals are often defined. Bodies that are smaller than planetesimals must rely on Brownian motion or turbulent motions in the gas to cause the collisions that can lead to sticking. The mechanics of collisions and mechanisms of sticking are intricate processes in themselves.[2][3] Alternatively, planetesimals may form in a very dense layer of dust grains that undergoes a collective gravitational instability in the mid-plane of a protoplanetary disk or via the concentration and gravitational collapse of swarms of larger particles in streaming instabilities. Many planetesimals eventually break apart during violent collisions, as may have happened to 4 Vesta[4] and 90 Antiope,[5] but a few of the largest planetesimals may survive such encounters and continue to grow into protoplanets and later planets.

Planetesimals in the Solar SystemEdit

It is generally thought that about 3.8 billion years ago, after a period known as the Late Heavy Bombardment, most of the planetesimals within the Solar System had either been ejected from the Solar System entirely, into distant eccentric orbits such as the Oort cloud, or had collided with larger objects due to the regular gravitational nudges from the giant planets (particularly Jupiter and Neptune). A few planetesimals may have been captured as moons, such as Phobos and Deimos (the moons of Mars) and many of the small high-inclination moons of the giant planets.

Planetesimals that have survived to the current day are valuable to science because they contain information about the formation of the Solar System. Although their exteriors are subjected to intense solar radiation that can alter their chemistry, their interiors contain pristine material essentially untouched since the planetesimal was formed. This makes each planetesimal a 'time capsule', and their composition might reveal the conditions in the Solar Nebula from which our planetary system was formed. The most primitive planetesimals visited by spacecraft are the contact binary Arrokoth.[6]

Definition of planetesimalEdit

The word planetesimal comes from the mathematical concept infinitesimal and literally means an ultimately small fraction of a planet.

While the name is always applied to small bodies during the process of planet formation, some scientists also use the term planetesimal as a general term to refer to many small Solar System bodies – such as asteroids and comets – which are left over from the formation process. A group of the world's leading planet formation experts decided at a conference in 2006[7] on the following definition of a planetesimal:

A planetesimal is a solid object arising during the accumulation of orbiting bodies whose internal strength is dominated by self-gravity and whose orbital dynamics is not significantly affected by gas drag. This corresponds to objects larger than approximately 1 km in the solar nebula.

Bodies large enough not only to keep together by gravitation but to change the path of approaching rocks over distances of several radii start to grow faster. These bodies, larger than 100 km to 1000 km, are called embryos or protoplanets.[8]

In the current Solar System, these small bodies are usually also classified by dynamics and composition, and may have subsequently evolved[9][10][11] to become comets, Kuiper belt objects or trojan asteroids, for example. In other words, some planetesimals became other types of body once planetary formation had finished, and may be referred to by either or both names.

The above definition is not endorsed by the International Astronomical Union, and other working groups may choose to adopt the same or a different definition. There is also no exact dividing line between a planetesimal and protoplanet.

See alsoEdit

Notes and referencesEdit

  1. ^ Harrington, J.D.; Villard, Ray (24 April 2014). "RELEASE 14-114 Astronomical Forensics Uncover Planetary Disks in NASA's Hubble Archive". NASA. Archived from the original on 2014-04-25. Retrieved 2014-04-25.
  2. ^ Blum, Juergen; Wurm, Gerhard (2008). "The Growth Mechanisms of Macroscopic Bodies in Protoplanetary Disks". Annual Reviews.
  3. ^ Singh, Chamkor; Mazza, Marco (2018). "Early-stage aggregation in three-dimensional charged granular gas". Physical Review E. American Physical Society. p. 022904. doi:10.1103/PhysRevE.97.022904.
  4. ^ Savage, Don; Jones, Tammy; Villard, Ray (1995). "Asteroid or Mini-Planet? Hubble Maps the Ancient Surface of Vesta". Hubble Site News Release STScI-1995-20. Retrieved 2006-10-17.
  5. ^ Marchis, Franck; Enriquez, J. E.; Emery, J. P.; Berthier, J.; Descamps, P. (2009). The Origin of the Double Main Belt Asteroid (90) Antiope by Component-Resolved Spectroscopy. DPS meeting #41. American Astronomical Society. Bibcode:2009DPS....41.5610M.
  6. ^ Jeff Moore, New Horizons press release, NASA TV, 2 January 2019
  7. ^ Workshop From Dust to Planetesimals Archived 2006-09-07 at the Wayback Machine
  8. ^ Michael Perryman: The Exoplanet Handbook. Cambridge University Press, 2011, ISBN 978-0-521-76559-6, [1], p. 226, at Google Books.
  9. ^ Morbidelli, A. "Origin and dynamical evolution of comets and their reservoirs". arXiv.
  10. ^ Gomes, R., Levison, H. F., Tsiganis, K., Morbidelli, A. 2005, "Origin of the cataclysmic Late Heavy Bombardment period of the terrestrial planets". Nature, 435, 466–469.
  11. ^ Morbidelli, A., Levison, H. F., Tsiganis, K., Gomes, R. 2005, "Chaotic capture of Jupiter's Trojan asteroids in the early Solar System". Nature, 435, 462–465.

Further readingEdit

  • Discovering the Essential Universe by Neil F. Comins (2001)[ISBN missing]
  • Linda T. Elkins-Tanton, et al.: Planetesimals – Early Differentiation and Consequences for Planets. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge 2017, ISBN 978-1107118485.