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.
Modern observational techniques are still not powerful enough to directly view planet formation, and so it is necessary to rely on theory. However, observations do give two important clues to the formation process. The first is that the most primitive form of material in interstellar space exists as a dilute gas. Some of this gas is unstable against gravitational collapse, and begins to contract. Because the angular momentum of the gas is not zero, it contracts along the spin axis, but remains extended in the plane perpendicular to that axis, so that a disk is formed. Viscous processes in the disk carry most of the mass into the center where a star eventually forms. In the process, almost as a by-product, a planetary system is formed as well.
The second clue is the time required. Young stars are indeed observed to have gas disks, composed mostly of hydrogen and helium, surrounding them, and observations tell us that these disks dissipate after about 5 to 10 million years. If planets like Jupiter and Saturn, which are very rich in hydrogen and helium, are to form in such a disk, they must accrete their gas within 5 million years of the time of the formation of the disk. Any formation scenario one proposes must produce Jupiter in that time, although the terrestrial planets, which don’t contain significant amounts of hydrogen and helium, could have taken longer to build. Modern estimates for the formation time of the Earth are of the order of 100 million years.
To date there are two main candidate theories for producing Jupiter-like planets. The core accretion (CA) scenario supposes that any solid materials in the disk slowly coagulate into protoplanetary cores with progressively larger masses. If the core remains small enough it won’t have a strong enough gravitational force to attract gas from the surrounding disk, and the result will be a terrestrial planet. If the core grows large enough (of the order of ten Earth masses), and the disk has not yet dissipated, then the planetary embryo can attract gas from the surrounding disk and grow to be a gas giant. If the disk dissipates before the process is complete, the result will be an object like Uranus or Neptune, which has a small, but significant, complement of hydrogen and helium. The main question is whether the protoplanetary core can grow large enough before the disk dissipates.
A second scenario is the disk instability (DI) scenario. This scenario posits that the disk itself is unstable and tends to develop regions of higher than normal density. Such regions collapse under their own gravity to form Jupiter-mass protoplanets. In the DI scenario a Jupiter-mass clump of gas can form—in several hundred years which will eventually contract into a gas giant planet. The difficulty here is to bring the disk to a condition where such instabilities will form. Now that we have discovered nearly 3000 planetary systems, there will be numerous examples against which to test these scenarios.