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.
George J. Flynn
Scattered sunlight from interplanetary dust particles, mostly produced by comets and asteroids, orbiting the Sun are visible at dusk or dawn as the Zodiacal Cloud. Impacts onto the space-exposed surfaces of Earth-orbiting satellites indicate that, in the current era, thousands of tons of interplanetary dust enters the Earth’s atmosphere every year. Some particles vaporize forming meteors while others survive atmospheric deceleration and settle to the surface of the Earth. NASA has collected interplanetary dust particles from the Earth’s stratosphere using high-altitude aircraft since the mid-1970s. Detailed characterization of these particles shows that some are unique samples of Solar System and presolar material, never affected by the aqueous and thermal processing that overprints the record of formation from the Solar Protoplanetary Disk in the meteorites. These particles preserve the record of grain and dust formation from the disk. This record suggests that many of the crystalline minerals, dominated by crystalline silicates (olivine and pyroxene) and Fe-sulfides, condensed from gas in the inner Solar System and were then transported outward to the colder outer Solar System where carbon-bearing ices condensed on the surfaces of the grains. Irradiation by solar ultraviolet light and cosmic rays produced thin organic coatings on the grain surfaces that likely aided in grain sticking, forming the first dust particles of the Solar System. This continuous, planet-wide rain of interplanetary dust particles can be monitored by the accumulation of 3He, implanted into the interplanetary dust particles by the Solar Wind while they were in space, in oceanic sediments. The interplanetary dust, which is rich in organic carbon, may have contributed important pre-biotic organic matter important to the development of life to the surface of the early Earth.
Cosmogenic nuclides are produced by the interaction of energetic elementary particles of galactic cosmic radiation (GCR) and their secondaries with atomic nuclei in extraterrestrial or terrestrial material. In extraterrestrial samples cosmogenic nuclides produced by energetic particles emitted by the Sun (SCR) are also detectable. Cosmogenic nuclides usually are observable only for noble gas isotopes, whose natural abundances in the targets of interest are exceedingly low, with some radioactive isotopes having half-lives mostly in the million-year range, and a few stable nuclides of elements such as Gd and Sm whose abundance is appreciably modified by reactions with low-energy secondary cosmic-ray neutrons. In solid matter, the mean attenuation length of GCR protons is on the order of 50 cm. Therefore, cosmogenic nuclides are a major tool to study the history of small objects in space and of matter near the surfaces of larger parent bodies. A classical application is to measure “exposure ages” of meteorites, that is, the time they spent as a small body in interplanetary space. In some cases, the previous history of the future meteorite in its parent-body regolith can also be constrained. Such information helps to understand delivery mechanisms of meteorites from their parent asteroids (mainly from the main belt) or parent planets, and to constrain the number of ejection events responsible for the meteorites in collections worldwide. Cosmogenic nuclides in lunar samples from known depths of up to ~2 m serve to study the deposition and mixing history of the lunar regolith over hundreds of million years, as well as to calibrate nuclide production models. Present and future sample return missions rely on cosmogenic nuclide measurements as important tools to constrain the sample’s exposure history or loss rates of its parent-body surfaces to space. First measurements of cosmogenic noble gas isotopes on the surface of Mars demonstrate that the exposure and erosional history of planetary bodies can be obtained by in situ analyses. Exposure ages of presolar grains in meteorites provide at present the only quantitative constraint of their presolar history. In some cases, irradiation effects of energetic particles from the early Sun can be detected in early solar system condensates, confirming that the early Sun was likely much more active than later in its history, as expected from observations of young stars. The increasing precision of modern isotope analyses also reveals tiny isotopic anomalies induced by cosmic-ray effects in several elements of interest in cosmochemistry, which need to be recognized and corrected for. Cosmogenic nuclide studies rely on the knowledge of their production rates, which depend on the elemental composition of a sample and its “shielding” during irradiation, that is, its position within an irradiated object, and for meteorites their pre-atmospheric size. The physics of cosmogenic nuclide production is basically well understood and has led to sophisticated production models. They are most successful if a sample’s shielding can be constrained by the analyses of several cosmogenic nuclides with different depth dependencies of their production rates. Cosmogenic nuclides are also an important tool in Earth sciences, although this is not a topic of this article. The foremost example is 14C produced in the atmosphere and incorporated into organic material, which is used for dating. Cosmogenic radionucuclides and noble gases produced in situ in near-surface samples, mostly by secondary cosmic-ray neutrons, are an important tool in quantitative geomorphology and related fields.
Kun Wang and Randy Korotev
For thousands of years, people living in Egypt, China, Greece, Rome, and other parts of the world have been fascinated by shooting stars, which are the light and sound phenomena commonly associated with meteorite impacts. The earliest written record of a meteorite fall is logged by Chinese chroniclers in 687 bce. However, centuries before that, Egyptians had been using “heavenly iron” to make their first iron tools, including a dagger found in King Tutankhamun’s tomb that dates back to the 14th century bce. Even though human beings have a long history of observing meteors and utilizing meteorites, we did not start to recognize their true celestial origin until the Age of Enlightenment. In 1794 German physicist and musician Ernst Chladni was the first to summarize the scientific evidence and to demonstrate that these unique objects are indeed from outside of the Earth. After more than two centuries of joint efforts by countless keen amateur, academic, institutional, and commercial collectors, more than 60,000 meteorites have been catalogued and classified in the Meteoritical Bulletin Database. This number is continually growing, and meteorites are found all over the world, especially in dry and sparsely populated regions such as Antarctica and the Sahara Desert. Although there are thousands of individual meteorites, they can be handily classified into three broad groups by simple examinations of the specimens. The most common type is stony meteorite, which is made of mostly silicate rocks. Iron meteorites are the easiest to be preserved for thousands (or even millions) of years on the Earth’s surface environments, and they are composed of iron and nickel metals. The stony-irons contain roughly the same amount of metals and silicates, and these spectacular meteorites are the favorites of many collectors and museums. After 200 years, meteoritics (the science of meteorites) has grown out of its infancy and become a vibrant area of research today. The general directions of meteoritic studies are: (1) mineralogy, identifying new minerals or mineral phases that rarely or seldom found on the Earth; (2) petrology, studying the igneous and aqueous textures that give meteorites unique appearances, and providing information about geologic processes on the bodies upon which the meteorites originates; (3) geochemistry, characterizing their major, trace elemental, and isotopic compositions, and conducting interplanetary comparisons; and (4) chronology, dating the ages of the initial crystallization and later on impacting disturbances. Meteorites are the only extraterrestrial samples other than Apollo lunar rocks and Hayabusa asteroid samples that we can directly analyze in laboratories. Through the studies of meteorites, we have quested a vast amount of knowledge about the origin of the Solar System, the nature of the molecular cloud, the solar nebula, the nascent Sun and its planetary bodies including the Earth and its Moon, Mars, and many asteroids. In fact, the 4.6-billion-year age of the whole Solar System is solely defined by the oldest age dated in meteorites, which marked the beginning of everything we appreciate today.