Formation of the Solar System

by Fraser Cain on July 16, 2008

Artist\'s impression of planetary formation. Image credit: NASA
Where did the Solar System come from? How did we go from space to a star with planets orbiting around it? Before we can look at the formation of the Solar System, we have to see what this region looked like.

Throughout the Milky Way, there are clouds of cold gas and dust, just sitting there, doing nothing. At some point in the distant past, this cloud was disturbed; either through the collision of another galaxy, or the explosion of a massive star.

The explosion would have sent waves through space that squeezed the gas and dust together. The clumping material was able to attract more material with its gravity, and started to collect into the solar nebula. The mutual movement of all the atoms in the cloud gave the solar nebula a direction to spin.

The Sun formed out of the largest collection of mass at the center of the solar nebula. Because it was spinning quickly, the rest of the nebula collected into a flattened disk around the newborn Sun – astronomers call this an accretion disk. Within the accretion disk, additional clumps gathered together; these would eventually form the planets.

The planets started out as tiny specks of dust that clumped together. As they continued to gather together, they became pebbles, rocks, boulders and eventually planetoids. These planetoids violently collided together to become the planets we know today.

By studying the decay of radioactive elements in meteorites, astronomers have been able to determine that the Solar System formed about 4.6 billion years ago.

When astronomers look out into the Universe, they see other Solar Systems forming at different stages. Some are large clouds of cold dust, others are starting to collapse. Others have accretion disks, and some might even have planets clearing out paths in the dust of the disk. We can’t see the formation of our own Solar System, but we can see it happening everywhere we look, so we assume our Solar System formed in the same way.

Here’s an article from Universe Today about planetary formation, and another about how the gas giants might have formed quickly.

Here’s an article from Wikipedia about the formation of the Solar System, and a link to NASA’s Solar System Simulator.

We have recorded a whole series of podcasts about the Solar System at Astronomy Cast. Check them out here.


Fraser Cain is the publisher of Universe Today. He's also the co-host of Astronomy Cast with Dr. Pamela Gay.

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