Planetesimal dissolution in the envelopes of the forming, giant planets

James B. Pollack*, Morris Podolak, Peter Bodenheimer, Bruce Christofferson

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


We have assessed the ability of planetesimals to penetrate through the envelopes of growing giant planets that form by a "core-instability" mechanism. According to this mechanism, a core grows by the accretion of solid bodies in the solar nebula and the growing core becomes progressively more effective in gravitationally concentrating gas from the surrounding solar nebula in an envelope until a "runaway" accretion of gas occurs. In performing this assessment, we have considered the ability of gas drag to slow down a planetesimal; the effectiveness of gas dynamical pressure in fracturing and ultimately finely fragmenting it; the ability of its strength and self-gravity to resist such fracturing; and the degree to which it is evaporated due to heating by the surrounding envelope, including shock heating that develops during the supersonic portion of its trajectory. We also consider what happens if the planetesimal is able to reach the core at free-fall velocity and the ability of the envelope to convectively mix dissolved materials to different radial distances. These calculations were performed for various epochs in the growth of a giant planet with the model envelopes derived by Bodenheimer and Pollack (1986, 67, 391-408). As might have been anticipated, our results vary significantly with the size of the planetesimal, its composition, and the stage of growth of the giant planet and hence the mass of its envelope. Over much of the growth phase of the core, prior to its reaching its critical mass for runaway gas accretion, icy planetesimals less than about 1 m in size dissolve in the outer region of the envelope, ones larger than about 1 m and smaller than about 1 km dissolve in the middle region of the envelope, ones larger than 1 km either reach the core interface or dissolve in the deeper regions of the envelope. Similarly rocky planetesimals smaller than about a kilometer dissolve in the middle portion of the envelope, while larger ones can penetrate more deeply. Furthermore, the convection zones of the envelopes during this stage are confined to localized regions and hence dissolved materials experience little radial mixing then. Thus, if much of the accreted mass is contained in planetesimals larger than about a kilometer, the critical core mass for runaway accretion is not expected to change significantly when planetesimal dissolution is taken into account. After accretion is terminated and the planet contracts toward its present size, the convection zone grows until it encompasses the entire envelope. Therefore, dissolved material should eventually become well mixed through the envelope. We proposed that the envelopes of the giant planets should contain significant enhancements above solar proportions in the abundances of virtually all elements relative to that of hydrogen, with the magnitude of the enhancement increasing approximately linearly with the ratio of the high Z mass to the (H, He) mass for the bulk of the planet. This prediction is in accord both qualitatively and quantitatively with the systematic increase in the atmospheric C/H ratio from Jupiter to Saturn to Uranus and Neptune and semiquantitatively with the results of recent interior models of the giant planets. It is not clear whether it is consistent with the abundances of H2O and NH3 in the atmospheres of some of the outer planets. Finally, the complete reduction of some dissolved materials, especially C containing compounds, is expected to consume some of the H2 in the envelopes. Consequently, the He/H2 ratios in the atmospheres of Uranus and Neptune may be slightly enhanced over the solar ratio. We estimate that the He/H2 ratios for Uranus' and Neptune's atmospheres should be about 6 and 15% larger, respectively, than the solar ratio.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)409-443
Number of pages35
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1986


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