Super-Earths - planets with sizes between the Earth and Neptune - are found in tighter orbits than that of the Earth around more than one third of main sequence stars. It has been proposed that super-Earths are scaled-up terrestrial planets that also formed similarly, through mutual accretion of planetary embryos, but in discs much denser than the solar protoplanetary disc. We argue instead that terrestrial planets and super-Earths have two clearly distinct formation pathways that are regulated by the pebble reservoir of the disc. Through numerical integrations, which combine pebble accretion and N-body gravity between embryos, we show that a difference of a factor of two in the pebble mass flux is enough to change the evolution from the terrestrial to the super-Earth growth mode. If the pebble mass flux is small, then the initial embryos within the ice line grow slowly and do not migrate substantially, resulting in a widely spaced population of approximately Mars-mass embryos when the gas disc dissipates. Subsequently, without gas being present, the embryos become unstable due to mutual gravitational interactions and a small number of terrestrial planets are formed by mutual collisions. The final terrestrial planets are at most five Earth masses. Instead, if the pebble mass flux is high, then the initial embryos within the ice line rapidly become sufficiently massive to migrate through the gas disc. Embryos concentrate at the inner edge of the disc and growth accelerates through mutual merging. This leads to the formation of a system of closely spaced super-Earths in the five to twenty Earth-mass range, bounded by the pebble isolation mass. Generally, instabilities of these super-Earth systems after the disappearance of the gas disc trigger additional merging events and dislodge the system from resonant chains. Therefore, the key difference between the two growth modes is whether embryos grow fast enough to undergo significant migration. The terrestrial growth mode produces small rocky planets on wider orbits like those in the solar system whereas the super-Earth growth mode produces planets in short-period orbits inside 1 AU, with masses larger than the Earth that should be surrounded by a primordial H/He atmosphere, unless subsequently lost by stellar irradiation. The pebble flux - which controls the transition between the two growth modes - may be regulated by the initial reservoir of solids in the disc or the presence of more distant giant planets that can halt the radial flow of pebbles.
Subject classification (UKÄ)
- Astronomy, Astrophysics and Cosmology
- Planets and satellites: composition
- Planets and satellites: dynamical evolution and stability
- Planets and satellites: formation
- Planets and satellites: terrestrial planets
- Protoplanetary discs