Numerical modeling of protocore destabilization during planetary accretion: Methodology and results

Ja Ren Lin, Taras V. Gerya, Paul J. Tackley, David A Yuen, Gregor J. Golabek

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

10 Scopus citations


We developed and tested an efficient 2D numerical methodology for modeling gravitational redistribution processes in a quasi spherical planetary body based on a simple Cartesian grid. This methodology allows one to implement large viscosity contrasts and to handle properly a free surface and self-gravitation. With this novel method we investigated in a simplified way the evolution of gravitationally unstable global three-layer structures in the interiors of large metal-silicate planetary bodies like those suggested by previous models of cold accretion [Sasaki, S., Nakazawa, K., 1986. J. Geophys. Res. 91, 9231-9238; Karato, S., Murthy, V.R., 1997. Phys. Earth Planet Interios 100, 61-79; Senshu, H., Kuramoto, K., Matsui, T., 2002. J. Geophys. Res. 107 (E12), 5118. 10.1029/2001JE001819]: an innermost solid protocore (either undifferentiated or partly differentiated), an intermediate metal-rich layer (either continuous or disrupted), and an outermost silicate-rich layer. Long-wavelength (degree-one) instability of this three-layer structure may strongly contribute to core formation dynamics by triggering planetary-scale gravitational redistribution processes. We studied possible geometrical modes of the resulting planetary reshaping using scaled 2D numerical experiments for self-gravitating planetary bodies with Mercury-, Mars- and Earth-size. In our simplified model the viscosity of each material remains constant during the experiment and rheological effects of gravitational energy dissipation are not taken into account. However, in contrast to a previously conducted numerical study [Honda, R., Mizutani, H., Yamamoto, T., 1993. J. Geophys. Res. 98, 2075-2089] we explored a freely deformable planetary surface and a broad range of viscosity ratios between the metallic layer and the protocore (0.001-1000) as well as between the silicate layer and the protocore (0.001-1000). An important new prediction from our study is that realistic modes of planetary reshaping characterized by a high viscosity protocore and low viscosity molten silicate and metal [Senshu, H., Kuramoto, K., Matsui, T., 2002. J. Geophys. Res. 107 (E12), 5118. 10.1029/2001JE001819] may result in the transient exposure of the protocore to the planetary surface and a strongly (up to 8% of the planetary diameter) aspherical deviation of the planetary shape during the early stages of core formation. Exposure of the protocore might happen in the early stages of iron core formation. This process may conceivably convert a large amount of potential energy into temperature increase and a transient strongly non-uniform depth of the magma ocean around the protoplanet. Our simplified model also predicts that the time for metallic core formation out of the metal-rich layer depends mainly on the dynamics of the deformation of the solid strong protocore. In nature this dynamics will be strongly dependent on the effective viscosity of the protocore, which should generally have non-Newtonian pressure-, temperature-, and stress-dependent rheology with strong thermomechanical feedbacks from gravitational energy dissipation.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)732-748
Number of pages17
Issue number2
StatePublished - Dec 1 2009


  • Planetary formation

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