In planetary science, accretion is the process in which solids agglomerate to form larger and larger objects, and eventually planets are produced. The initial conditions are a disc of gas and microscopic solid particles, with a total mass of about 1% of the gas mass. These discs are routinely detected around young stars and are now imaged with the new generation of instruments. Accretion has to be effective and fast. Effective, because the original total mass in solids in the solar protoplanetary disk was probably of the order of ~300 Earth masses, and the mass incorporated into the planets is ~100 Earth masses. Fast, because the cores of the giant planets had to grow to tens of Earth masses to capture massive doses of hydrogen and helium from the disc before the dispersal of the latter, in a few millions of years.
The surveys for extrasolar planets have shown that most stars have planets around them. Accretion is therefore not an oddity of the solar system. However, the final planetary systems are very different from each other, and typically very different from the solar system. Observations have shown that more than 50% of the stars have planets that don’t have analogues in the solar system. Therefore the solar system is not the typical specimen. Models of planet accretion have to explain not only how planets form, but also why the outcomes of the accretion history can be so diverse.
There is probably not one accretion process but several, depending on the scale at which accretion operates. A first process is the sticking of microscopic dust into larger grains and pebbles. A second process is the formation of an intermediate class of objects called planetesimals. There are still planetesimals left in the solar system. They are the asteroids orbiting between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, the trans-Neptunian objects in the distant system, and other objects trapped along the orbits of the planets (Trojans) or around the giant planets themselves (irregular satellites). The Oort cloud, source of the long period comets, is also made of planetesimals ejected from the region of formation of the giant planets. A third accretion process has to lead from planetesimals to planets. Actually, several processes can be involved in this step, from collisional coagulation among planetesimals to the accretion of small particles under the effect of gas drag, to giant impacts between protoplanets. Adopting a historical perspective of all these processes provides details of the classic processes investigated in the past decades to those unveiled in the last years.
The quest for planet formation is ongoing. Open issues remain, and exciting future developments are expected.
This article consists of three sections. The first discusses how we determine satellite internal structures and what we know about them. The primary probes of internal structure are measurements of magnetic induction, gravity, and topography, as well as rotation state and orientation. Enceladus, Europa, Ganymede, Callisto, Titan, and (perhaps) Pluto all have subsurface oceans; Callisto and Titan may be only incompletely differentiated. The second section describes dynamical processes that affect satellite interiors and surfaces: tidal and radioactive heating, flexure and relaxation, convection, cryovolcanism, true polar wander, non-synchronous rotation, orbital evolution, and impacts. The final section discusses how the satellites formed and evolved. Ancient tidal heating episodes and subsequent refreezing of a subsurface ocean are the likeliest explanation for the deformation observed at Ganymede, Tethys, Dione, Rhea, Miranda, Ariel, and Titania. The high heat output of Enceladus is a consequence of Saturn’s highly dissipative interior, but the dissipation rate is strongly frequency-dependent and does not necessarily imply that Saturn’s moons are young. Major remaining questions include the origins of Titan’s atmosphere and high eccentricity, the regular density progression in the Galilean satellites, and the orbital evolution of the Saturnian and Uranian moons.
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Planetary Science. Please check back later for the full article.
Probing the interiors of the giant planets in our Solar System is not an easy task. This requires a set of observations combined with theoretical models that are used to infer the planetary composition and its depth dependence. The masses of Jupiter and Saturn are 318 and 96 Earth masses, respectively, and since a few decades, we know that they mostly consist of hydrogen and helium.
It is the mass of heavy elements (all elements heavier than helium) that is not well determined, as well as its distribution within the planets. While the heavy elements are not the dominating materials in Jupiter and Saturn, they are the key for our understanding of their formation and evolution histories.
The planetary internal structure is inferred to fit the available observational constraints including the planetary masses, radii, 1-bar temperatures, rotation rates, and gravitational fields. Then, using theoretical equations of states (EOSs) for hydrogen, helium, their mixtures, and heavier elements (typically rocks and/or ices), a structure model is developed. However, there is no unique solution for the planetary structure, and the results depend on the used EOSs and the model assumptions imposed by the modeler.
Standard interior models of Jupiter and Saturn include three main regions: (1) the central region (core) that consists of heavy elements, (2) an inner metallic hydrogen envelope that is helium rich, and (3) an outer molecular hydrogen envelope depleted with helium. The distribution of heavy elements can be either homogenous or discontinuous between the two envelopes.
Major model assumptions that can affect the derived internal structure include the number of layers, the heat transport mechanism within the planet (and its entropy), the nature of the core (compact vs. diluted), and the location/pressure where the envelopes are divided. Alternative structure models assume a less distinct division between the layers and/or a less non-homogenous distribution of the heavy elements. The fact that the behavior of hydrogen at high pressures and temperatures in not perfectly known, and that helium separates from hydrogen at the deep interior add sources of uncertainties to the interior model. Today, with accurate measurements of the gravitational fields of Jupiter and Saturn from the Juno and Cassini missions, structure models can be further constrained. At the same time, these measurements introduce new challenges and open question for planetary modelers.
Ulrich R. Christensen
This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Encyclopedia of Planetary Science. Please check back later for the full article.
The Earth’s magnetic field has been known for centuries. Since the mid-20th century space missions carrying vector magnetometers showed that most, but not all, solar system planets have a global magnetic field of internal origin. They also revealed a surprising diversity in terms of field strength and morphology. While Jupiter’s field, like that of Earth, is dominated by a dipole moderately tilted relative to the planet’s spin axis, with multipole components being subordinate but not negligible, the fields of Uranus and Neptune are multipole-dominated, whereas those of Saturn und Mercury are highly symmetric relative to the rotation axis. Planetary magnetism originates from a dynamo process, which requires a fluid and electrically conducting region in the interior with sufficiently rapid and complex flow. The magnetic fields are of interest for three reasons: (1) They provide ground truth for dynamo theory, which is a fundamental and not completely solved physical problem; (2) the magnetic field controls how the planet interacts with its space environment, for example, the solar wind; and (3) the existence (or nonexistence) and the properties of the field allow us to draw inferences on the constitution, dynamics, and thermal evolution of the planet’s interior. For example, the lack of global magnetic fields at Mars and Venus can be explained if their iron cores, although liquid, are stably stratified.
Numerical simulations of the geodynamo—in which convective flow in a rapidly rotating spherical shell representing the outer liquid iron core of the Earth leads to induction of electric currents and the associated magnetic field—have successfully reproduced many observed properties of the geomagnetic field. They have also provided guidelines on the factors controlling magnetic field strength and, tentatively, their morphology. For numerical reasons the simulations must employ viscosities far greater than those inside planets, and it is debatable whether they truly capture the correct physics of planetary dynamo processes. Nonetheless, such models have been adapted to test concepts for explaining magnetic field properties of other planets. For example, they show that a stable stratified conducting layer above the dynamo region is a plausible cause for the strongly axisymmetric magnetic fields of Mercury or Saturn.