Background: I was recently reading a book on the planets to my son and I noticed a pattern in the distributions of the planets. The planets' distances roughly follow an exponential distribution.

Below is a plot of scaled, log orbital distances $$ \tilde{d_n} = \frac{\log(d_n/d_1)}{\log(d_2/d_1)} $$ with the line $an+b$: enter image description here

Where $d_1$ corresponds to Mercury and so on. Ceres is included, Pluto is excluded. By linear regression, $a = 0.90, b = -1.06$.

For the statistically minded, the data has a Pearson's correlation of 0.996. Note that this is a well known phenomenon, see Pletser and references. The code used to generate the plot may be provided on request.

Question: What is the mechanism that leads to this distribution?

Aside: Is there a good introductory text on solar system formation for the mathematically inclined?

Update: This is also known as Titius–Bode law.

  • 2
    $\begingroup$ See also wikipedia. $\endgroup$
    – Qmechanic
    Dec 27, 2011 at 17:44
  • $\begingroup$ By the way, I am a bit surprised that some emergent quantisation had not been tried on this topic, at least I would expect something in the crackpot or esoteric literatures. Scale-invariant systems are not rare in quantum mechanics. $\endgroup$
    – arivero
    Jul 3, 2014 at 23:54

3 Answers 3


This correlation is known as Titius-Bode's law, which is often stated as

\begin{equation} d=0.4 + 0.3 \cdot 2^n \end{equation}

where d represents planet's mean distance from the Sun in Astronomical Units and n = -∞, 0, 1, 2... for Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, asteroid belt, Jupiter and so on.

The rule is not satisfied exactly with Neptune's orbit (n=7) constituting a significant departure from it: according to the law Neptune's mean distance ought to be 38.8 AUs, but is in reality just 30 AUs (disagreement of close to 30% with all other planets agreeing to less than 6%). In fact, this departure is what has historically led to diminishing importance of the law. See also the table and chart in wikipedia.

It is currently thought that if the law is not a pure coincidence then it is a consequence of orbital instabilities and the mechanism through which Solar system was formed. It's been shown that rotational and scale invariance of a protoplanetary disk leads to density maxima in the disk appearing periodically in variable

\begin{equation} x = \ln \frac{r_n}{r_0} \end{equation}

which leads to geometric series for planetary distances similar to that expressed in Titius-Bode's law. See this and this paper for details.

Note that the requirements of rotational and scale invariance are very general. As the nebula from which protoplanetary disk is formed collapses under its own gravity, its rotation increases due to the law of the conservation of angular momentum. This eventually leads to the protoplanetary disk's rotational symmetry. Also, gravity does not have intrinsic length scale, so the nebula is highly likely to possess scale invariance. These two requirements are so general that even if the Titius-Bode's law is real it isn't at all useful to select between Solar system's formation models.

I don't know of an advanced book specifically on Solar system formation, but there is a very good book by A.E. Roy on orbital mechanics which certainly would qualify as a book for the mathematically inclined which in addition to chapters on orbital mechanics, rocket dynamics, interplanetary trajectory design includes few solar system formation and many-body stellar systems. So depending on how broad your interests are you may enjoy it.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ It's worth mentioning now that we can start to test the significance of these scalings in other planetary systems. See for instance arxiv.org/abs/1304.3341 $\endgroup$
    – user10851
    Apr 21, 2013 at 21:12

They don't exactly it's more a (pretty good) statistical correlation than a law.

The usual explanation is that resonances between other planets or existing planets and the sun, disrupted any planets that began to form at any other distance - but it's not theoretically well understood.

  • $\begingroup$ Is there a reference for that last statement? $\endgroup$ Dec 29, 2011 at 1:10
  • $\begingroup$ There is no chance for this statistical correlation to be due to random chance, so the first sentence is wrong. The resonance explanation is for irrational ratios not well approximated by rational numbers between the orbits, not for any one specific ratio between any two planets. $\endgroup$
    – Ron Maimon
    Jan 3, 2012 at 6:00

The planets appear to have formed by accretion of dust and gas around initially-small nuclei in orbit around the sun. As orbital radius (distance from the sun) increases, more material is available (in a uniform dust/gas disc) to accrete, so you get bigger planets further out; bigger planets sweep up more of their neighbors, so they tend to be spaced further apart. Further out still (past Jupiter and Saturn), it appears the planets get smaller again, possibly because the protoplanetary dust cloud was less dense further out, so you'd expect planets to be more closely spaced there again, but further out, the effect of the sun's gravity is very small, so it takes less perturbation from other bodies to disrupt a stable orbit there. This is reproducible in fairly simple simulations.

  • $\begingroup$ Has it not been shown recently that our solar system may actually be the exception to the rule with regards to having larger planets farther out? The current evidence seems to suggest that gas giants tend more to form closer to the sun. So then your argument would be invalid? $\endgroup$ Mar 27, 2017 at 9:38

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