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Queen Mary academic awarded €2.3m to investigate how planets are formed from dust

Dr Sijme-Jan Paardekooper from the School of Physical and Chemical Sciences has been awarded € 2,314,680 from the European Research Council (ERC) to study how dust distribution impacts the formation of planets. He is one of 253 leading researchers across Europe who have been awarded funding in the ERC's 2021 Advanced Grants competition. 

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Planets form in discs of gas and dust around young stars. Within these discs, micron-sized dust particles need to clump together to grow 14 orders of magnitude to form Earth-like planets as well as the cores of giant planets.

It is a major challenge to understand dust growth from start to finish. Even state of the art observations can only provide glimpses of the dust distribution at a limited range of sizes. However, for a comprehensive theory of planet formation, we need to understand the process from start to finish, from micron-sized to planet-sized.

Dr Paardekooper's research will explore the story of the dust size distribution: how many dust specks, pebbles and boulders are present? While there are large size ranges that are invisible to us, this research project will exploit the fact that all dust sizes are coupled to the gas via friction to take a panoptic view of the size distribution.

Dr Paardekooper said: “I want to thank the ERC for this exciting opportunity. By looking at the size distribution as a whole, we can start to fill in the gaps in the story of planet formation and get a handle on the building blocks that are invisible to us. For the first time, we will be able to get a view on planet formation from start to finish.”

The team perform dynamic simulations, including the full dust size distribution, to write the diverse story of planet formation. They aim to reconstruct the full-size distribution from sparse observations, thereby avoiding the need for expensive multi-wavelength observations.

They will compare dust and gas distributions with observations of protoplanetary discs as well as the composition of Solar system bodies. They will use a novel numerical method that allows us to perform these computationally expensive simulations, and employ machine learning to speed up the calculations.

This way, they will for the first time be able to build up a complete picture of how dust particles grow into planets and construct a comprehensive model of planet formation.

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