Artists rendering of the birth of a solar system and the protoplanetary disk. Shutterstock.

Are Protoplanetary Disk Gaps Always Indicative of New Planets?

Protoplanetary disk gaps have long been considered signs of emerging planets, but recent research hints there might be more to the story.


About five billion years ago, the Earth was still in its developmental phase. Surrounded by a protoplanetary disk created by gas and dust influenced by the gravitational pull of larger celestial bodies like Jupiter, it’s believed that the forming Earth cleared its path, leaving a distinguishable gap in the disk. This narrative has been largely accepted, but it’s becoming evident that the association of such gaps with emerging planets might not always hold.

Stars, Disks, and the Age-Old Belief

Historically, evidence of planets being born from the remnants around young stars was found in low-resolution images of disks circling stars, for instance, Fomault. Given the cold, faint nature of the gas and dust around these young stars, studying them has been challenging.

But with the advent of state-of-the-art radio telescopes like ALMA, we now have a clearer picture. These telescopes have revealed detailed images of these disks, many showcasing clear ringed gaps, some even containing visible protoplanets. Hence, the popular belief: gaps signify planets, even if they remain unseen. However, a recent study in Astronomy & Astrophysics tells a different tale.


Researchers delved deep into N-body simulations of initial disk stages, where three to seven protoplanets interacted with elements within the disk. The model was intricate, considering factors such as the growth of these planets, their potential movement through gravitational influences, and more, over a 100 million-year timeframe. The results? Fascinating.

Intricacies of Young Disks: What the Simulations Revealed

Firstly, in the realm of a nascent disk, having five to seven protoplanets led to unstable orbits in merely 40,000 years, a cosmic nanosecond. Given this timeframe, it’s unlikely that planets cleared the disk gaps. Instead, certain resonances of a massive planet, like how Jupiter influenced our asteroid belt, might be causing these rings.

Additionally, planetary paths were found to be dynamic and could change significantly. Planets, especially the smaller ones, might traverse the disk in more unpredictable patterns during their formative years. This implies that identifying Earth-like planets forming in such disks could be a tall order since distinguishing them from the disk’s overall luminance becomes challenging.


The simple assumption that gaps in protoplanetary disks directly correlate with the formation and distribution of exoplanets in evolved star systems is now under scrutiny. The creation of planets is a nuanced procedure, and while we’ve uncovered some aspects, there’s still a vast universe of knowledge waiting to be explored.

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Written by Ivan Petricevic

I've been writing passionately about ancient civilizations, history, alien life, and various other subjects for more than eight years. You may have seen me appear on Discovery Channel's What On Earth series, History Channel's Ancient Aliens, and Gaia's Ancient Civilizations among others.

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