How cores grow by pebble accretion: I. Direct core growth

M. G. Brouwers, Allona Vazan, C. W. Ormel

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Context. Planet formation by pebble accretion is an alternative to planetesimal-driven core accretion. In this scenario, planets grow by the accretion of cm- to m-sized pebbles instead of km-sized planetesimals. One of the main differences with planetesimal-driven core accretion is the increased thermal ablation experienced by pebbles. This can provide early enrichment to the planet's envelope, which influences its subsequent evolution and changes the process of core growth. Aims. We aim to predict core masses and envelope compositions of planets that form by pebble accretion and compare mass deposition of pebbles to planetesimals. Specifically, we calculate the core mass where pebbles completely evaporate and are absorbed before reaching the core, which signifies the end of direct core growth. Methods. We model the early growth of a protoplanet by calculating the structure of its envelope, taking into account the fate of impacting pebbles or planetesimals. The region where high-Z material can exist in vapor form is determined by the temperature-dependent vapor pressure. We include enrichment effects by locally modifying the mean molecular weight of the envelope. Results. In the pebble case, three phases of core growth can be identified. In the first phase (Mcore < 0.23-0.39 M), pebbles impact the core without significant ablation. During the second phase (Mcore < 0.5M), ablation becomes increasingly severe. A layer of high-Z vapor starts to form around the core that absorbs a small fraction of the ablated mass. The rest of the material either rains out to the core or instead mixes outwards, slowing core growth. In the third phase (Mcore > 0.5M), the high-Z inner region expands outwards, absorbing an increasing fraction of the ablated material as vapor. Rainout ends before the core mass reaches 0.6 M, terminating direct core growth. In the case of icy H2O pebbles, this happens before 0.1 M. Conclusions. Our results indicate that pebble accretion can directly form rocky cores up to only 0.6 M, and is unable to form similarly sized icy cores. Subsequent core growth can proceed indirectly when the planet cools, provided it is able to retain its high-Z material.

Original languageEnglish
Article numberA65
JournalAstronomy and Astrophysics
StatePublished - 1 Mar 2018

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
Acknolw edgements. C.W.O. is supported by The Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO; VIDI project 639.042.422). We thank the referee, Michiel Lambrechts, for a very constructive report.

Publisher Copyright:
© ESO 2018.


  • Methods: numerical
  • Planet-disk interactions
  • Planets and satellites: composition
  • Planets and satellites: formation
  • Planets and satellites: physical evolution


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