Formation of pebble-pile planetesimals

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Asteroids and Kuiper belt objects are remnant planetesimals from the epoch of planet formation. The first stage of planet formation is the accumulation of dust and ice grains into mm-cm-sized pebbles. These pebbles can clump together through the streaming instability and form gravitationally bound pebble `clouds'. Pebbles inside such a cloud will undergo mutual collisions, dissipating energy into heat. As the cloud loses energy, it gradually contracts towards solid density. We model this process and investigate two important properties of the collapse: (i) the timescale of the collapse and (ii) the temporal evolution of the pebble size distribution. Our numerical model of the pebble cloud is zero-dimensional and treats collisions with a statistical method. We find that planetesimals with radii larger than ~100 km collapse on the free-fall timescale of about 25 years. Lower-mass clouds have longer pebble collision timescales and collapse much more slowly, with collapse times of a few hundred years for 10-km-scale planetesimals and a few thousand years for 1-km-scale planetesimals. The mass of the pebble cloud also determines the interior structure of the resulting planetesimal. The pebble collision speeds in low-mass clouds are below the threshold for fragmentation, forming pebble-pile planetesimals consisting of the primordial pebbles from the protoplanetary disk. Planetesimals above 100 km in radius, on the other hand, consist of mixtures of dust (pebble fragments) and pebbles which have undergone substantial collisions with dust and other pebbles. The Rosetta mission to the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko and the New Horizons mission to Pluto will both provide valuable information about the structure of planetesimals in the Solar System. Our model predicts that 67P is a pebble-pile planetesimal consisting of primordial pebbles from the Solar Nebula, while the pebbles in the cloud which contracted to form Pluto must have been ground down substantially during the collapse.


Research areas and keywords

Subject classification (UKÄ) – MANDATORY

  • Astronomy, Astrophysics and Cosmology


  • Methods: analytical, Methods: numerical, minor planets, asteroids: general, Planets and satellites: formation, comets: general
Original languageEnglish
Article numberA47
JournalAstronomy & Astrophysics
Publication statusPublished - 2014
Publication categoryResearch

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