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Effects of protoplanetary nebula on orbital dynamics of planetesimals in the outer Solar system

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Massive gaseous nebula has been a key element to formation of large solid objects (planetesimals, giant planet cores) in the early phase of the Solar system evolution. Here, we focus on its effects during the stage when giant planets have already fully formed. Dynamical effects of the nebula on motion of planetesimals stirred by planets were twofold: (i) global gravitational acceleration, and (ii) local aerodynamic drag. Thanks to decreasing gas density with radial distance, in the outer Solar system the effect of the drag was deemed to be important only for small planetesimals (sizes \(\lesssim 10\) km). However, we find that it was possibly important up to the sizes of \(\simeq 100\) km as well. The gravitational field of the nebula produces secular oscillations of the orbital eccentricity and inclination of planetesimals. Eventually, their pericenter may be lifted away from strong planetary influence, exhibited during close encounters, even for small bodies born in the planetary heliocentric zone. It has been previously suggested that such pathway may, in some nebula models, launch planetesimals onto large-inclination and small-eccentricity orbits in the trans-Neptunian region. These orbits would be dynamically stable to present epoch. Our simulations generally do not support such extreme cases, but we find that, after the nebula disperses, some planetesimals may indeed reach low-inclination and low-eccentricity orbits exterior to Neptune. These bodies may have been implanted into the Kuiper belt during subsequent planetesimal-driven migration of planets. This raises a possibility that some present-day KBOs may have formed in the giant-planet zone (5–20 au).

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    In addition, orbital structure of planetesimals scattered by Jupiter onto \(a<5\) au orbits is now also very different. The effects of aerodynamics gas drag make them evolve onto low-eccentricity orbits, many embedded in the asteroidal main belt (see, e.g., Raymond and Izidoro 2017).

  2. 2.

    Note there are more particles left at the end of our simulations, namely those still strongly interacting with planets. However, since the timing of giant planet instability is not exactly known (e.g., Nesvorný et al. 2018), we are not primarily interested in them. For instance, if the reconfiguration occurred at 50 Myr, many of these particles will be still eliminated by effects of close encounters with planets.


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This research was supported by the Czech Science Foundation (Grant 18-06083S). We thank both anonymous referees for interesting comments that helped to improve the final form of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to David Vokrouhlický.

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This article is part of the topical collection on Trans-Neptunian Objects.

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Vokrouhlický, D., Nesvorný, D. Effects of protoplanetary nebula on orbital dynamics of planetesimals in the outer Solar system. Celest Mech Dyn Astr 132, 3 (2020).

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  • General
  • Solar nebula
  • Cosmogony
  • Origin and evolution
  • Gravitational fields
  • Orbital and rotational dynamics