Accretion (astrophysics)

Accretion (astrophysics)

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In astrophysics
Astrophysics is the branch of astronomy that deals with the physics of the universe, including the physical properties of celestial objects, as well as their interactions and behavior...

, the term accretion is used for at least two distinct processes.

The first and most common is the growth of a massive object by gravitation
Gravitation, or gravity, is a natural phenomenon by which physical bodies attract with a force proportional to their mass. Gravitation is most familiar as the agent that gives weight to objects with mass and causes them to fall to the ground when dropped...

ally attracting more matter, typically gas
Gas is one of the three classical states of matter . Near absolute zero, a substance exists as a solid. As heat is added to this substance it melts into a liquid at its melting point , boils into a gas at its boiling point, and if heated high enough would enter a plasma state in which the electrons...

eous matter in an accretion disc
Accretion disc
An accretion disc is a structure formed by diffuse material in orbital motion around a central body. The central body is typically a star. Gravity causes material in the disc to spiral inward towards the central body. Gravitational forces compress the material causing the emission of...

. Accretion discs are common around smaller stars or stellar remnants in a close binary
Binary star
A binary star is a star system consisting of two stars orbiting around their common center of mass. The brighter star is called the primary and the other is its companion star, comes, or secondary...

, or black hole
Black hole
A black hole is a region of spacetime from which nothing, not even light, can escape. The theory of general relativity predicts that a sufficiently compact mass will deform spacetime to form a black hole. Around a black hole there is a mathematically defined surface called an event horizon that...

s in the centers of spiral galaxies
A galaxy is a massive, gravitationally bound system that consists of stars and stellar remnants, an interstellar medium of gas and dust, and an important but poorly understood component tentatively dubbed dark matter. The word galaxy is derived from the Greek galaxias , literally "milky", a...

. Some dynamics in the disc are necessary to allow orbiting gas to lose angular momentum
Angular momentum
In physics, angular momentum, moment of momentum, or rotational momentum is a conserved vector quantity that can be used to describe the overall state of a physical system...

 and fall onto the central massive object. Occasionally, this can result in stellar surface fusion. (See: Bondi accretion
Bondi accretion
Bondi Accretion is spherical accretion onto an object. It is generally used in the context of neutron star and black hole accretion for compact objects traveling through the interstellar medium...


The second process is somewhat analogous to the one in atmospheric science
Accretion (atmosphere)
Accretion is an atmospheric science term for when an ice crystal or snowflake hits a supercooled liquid droplet, which then freeze together. This increases the size of the water particle. A common example of this that is visible to people is graupel....

. In the nebular theory, accretion refers to the collision and sticking of cooled microscopic dust and ice particles electrostatically, in protoplanetary discs and Gas giant
Gas giant
A gas giant is a large planet that is not primarily composed of rock or other solid matter. There are four gas giants in the Solar System: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune...

Protoplanets are large planetary embryos that originate within protoplanetary discs and have undergone internal melting to produce differentiated interiors. They are believed to form out of kilometer-sized planetesimals that attract each other gravitationally and collide...

 systems, eventually leading to planetesimals which gravitationally accrete more small particles and other planetesimals.

Use of the term accretion disc for the protoplanetary disc thus leads to confusion over the planetary accretion process, although in many cases it may well be that both accretion processes are happening simultaneously. T Tauri
T Tauri star
T Tauri stars are a class of variable stars named after their prototype – T Tauri. They are found near molecular clouds and identified by their optical variability and strong chromospheric lines.-Characteristics:...

 is an example of this phenomenon.


The Jovian protoplanets probably had discs of their own, in close analogy to the solar system
Solar System
The Solar System consists of the Sun and the astronomical objects gravitationally bound in orbit around it, all of which formed from the collapse of a giant molecular cloud approximately 4.6 billion years ago. The vast majority of the system's mass is in the Sun...

as a whole. A Jovian protoplanet may accrete gas from its surrounding protoplanetary disc, as in the first process; at the same time, dust and ice particles in the disc would accrete into moonlets and ring systems, as in the second process.