Magneto-rotational instability in the protolunar disk

Augusto Carballido, Steven Desch, G. Jeffrey Taylor

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


We perform the first study of magnetohydrodynamic processes in the protolunar disk (PLD). With the use of published data on the chemical composition of the PLD, along with existing analytical models of the disk structure, we show that the high temperatures that were prevalent in the disk would have led to ionization of Na, K, SiO, Zn and, to a lesser extent, O2. For simplicity, we assume that the disk has a vapor structure. The resulting ionization fractions, together with a relatively weak magnetic field, possibly of planetary origin, would have been sufficient to trigger the magneto-rotational instability, or MRI, as demonstrated by the fact that the Elsasser criterion was met in the PLD: a magnetic field embedded in the flow would have diffused more slowly than the growth rate of the linear perturbations. We calculate the intensity of the resulting magnetohydrodynamic turbulence, as parameterized by the dimensionless ratio α of turbulent stresses to gas pressure, and obtain maximum values α~10-2 along most of the vertical extent of the disk, and at different orbital radii. This indicates that, under these conditions, turbulent mixing within the PLD due to the MRI was likely capable of transporting isotopic and chemical species efficiently. To test these results in a conservative manner, we carry out a numerical magnetohydrodynamic simulation of a small, rectangular patch of the PLD, located at 4 Earth radii (rE) from the center of the Earth, and assuming once again that the disk is completely gaseous. We use a polytrope-like equation of state. The rectangular patch is threaded initially by a vertical magnetic field with zero net magnetic flux. This field configuration is known to produce relatively weak MRI turbulence in studies of astrophysical accretion disks. We accordingly obtain turbulence with an average intensity α~7×10-6 over the course of 280 orbital periods (133days at 4rE). Despite this relatively low value of α, the effective turbulent diffusivity D~1010-1011cm2s-1 of a passive tracer introduced in the flow is large enough to allow the tracer to spread across a radial distance of 10rE in ~13-129yr, less than the estimated cooling time of the PLD of ~250yr. Further improvements to our model will need to incorporate the energy balance in the disk, a complete two-phase structure, and a more realistic equation of state.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)89-101
Number of pages13
StatePublished - Apr 1 2016


  • Disks
  • Magnetic fields
  • Moon
  • Satellites, formation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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