The Irradiation Instability of Protoplanetary Disks

Yanqin Wu, Yoram Lithwick

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


The temperature in most parts of a protoplanetary disk is determined by irradiation from the central star. Numerical experiments of Watanabe and Lin suggested that such disks, also called "passive disks,"suffer from a thermal instability. Here we use analytical and numerical tools to elucidate the nature of this instability. We find that it is related to the flaring of the optical surface, the layer at which starlight is intercepted by the disk. Whenever a disk annulus is perturbed thermally and acquires a larger scale height, disk flaring becomes steeper in the inner part and flatter in the outer part. Starlight now shines more overhead for the inner part and so can penetrate into deeper layers; conversely, it is absorbed more shallowly in the outer part. These geometric changes allow the annulus to intercept more starlight, and the perturbation grows. We call this the irradiation instability. It requires only ingredients known to exist in realistic disks and operates best in parts that are both optically thick and geometrically thin (inside 30 au, but can extend to further reaches when, e.g., dust settling is considered). An unstable disk develops traveling thermal waves that reach order unity in amplitude. In thermal radiation, such a disk should appear as a series of bright rings interleaved with dark shadowed gaps, while in scattered light it resembles a moving staircase. Depending on the gas and dust responses, this instability could lead to a wide range of consequences, such as ALMA rings and gaps, dust traps, vertical circulation, vortices, and turbulence.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number123
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number1
StatePublished - Dec 10 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


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