Observations of massive, extended discs around both pre-main-sequence and main-sequence stellar systems indicate that protoplanetary discs larger than the observed planetary system are a common phenomenon, while the existence of large comets suggests that the total cometary mass is much greater than previous estimates. Both observations suggest that theories of the origin of the solar system are best approached from the perspective provided by theories of star formation, in particular that the protoplanetary disc may have extended up to ~103 AU. A model with a surface density distribution similar to a minimum-mass solar nebula, but extending further in radius, is derived by considering the gravitational collapse of a uniform, slowly rotating molecular cloud. The boundary of the planetary system is determined not by lack of mass, as in previous ‘mass-limited’ models (i.e. those with a sharp decrease in surface density Σ beyond the radius of the observed planetary system), but instead by the increasing collision time between the comets or planetesimals initially formed by gravitational instability beyond the planetary zone. Bodies formed beyond ~50 AU have sizes on the order of 102 km and represent a collisionally unevolved population; they are composed of relatively small, unaltered clumps of interstellar dust and ices with individual sizes estimated to range up to ~10 m. By contrast, bodies formed closer in, for example in the Uranus-Neptune zone, consist of larger agglomerations of dust and ices with individual sizes ranging up to ~1 km. Planetesimals formed by gravitational instability at smaller heliocentric distances r are typically much smaller than those formed further out, the masses mp
being proportional to Σ3
6, but subsequent collisional aggregation in the planetary region is expected to produce bodies with sizes ranging up to 102 km or more. In both cases the first-formed solid objects may be identified with observed cometary nuclei; some accumulate to produce the outer planets, but the majority are ejected, either to interstellar space or into the Oort cloud. Observed comets represent a dynamically well-mixed group from various sources; they are expected to comprise a heterogeneous mix of both pristine and relatively altered material and to have a broad mass distribution ranging up to the size of the largest planetesimals.