The effects of short-lived radionuclides and porosity on the early thermo-mechanical evolution of planetesimals

Tim Lichtenberg, Gregor J. Golabek, Taras V. Gerya, Michael R. Meyer
Icarus 274, 350-365 (2016)


The thermal history and internal structure of chondritic planetesimals, assembled before the giant impact phase of chaotic growth, potentially yield important implications for the final composition and evolution of terrestrial planets. These parameters critically depend on the internal balance of heating versus cooling, which is mostly determined by the presence of short-lived radionuclides (SLRs), such as aluminum-26 and iron-60, as well as the heat conductivity of the material. The heating by SLRs depends on their initial abundances, the formation time of the planetesimal and its size. It has been argued that the cooling history is determined by the porosity of the granular material, which undergoes dramatic changes via compaction processes and tends to decrease with time.

In this study we assess the influence of these parameters on the thermo-mechanical evolution of young planetesimals with both 2D and 3D simulations. Using the code family i2elvis/i3elvis we have run numerous 2D and 3D numerical finite-difference fluid dynamic models with varying planetesimal radius, formation time and initial porosity.

Our results indicate that powdery materials lowered the threshold for melting and convection in planetesimals, depending on the amount of SLRs present. A subset of planetesimals retained a powdery surface layer which lowered the thermal conductivity and hindered cooling. The effect of initial porosity was small, however, compared to those of planetesimal size and formation time, which dominated the thermo-mechanical evolution and were the primary factors for the onset of melting and differentiation. We comment on the implications of this work concerning the structure and evolution of these planetesimals, as well as their behavior as possible building blocks of terrestrial planets.