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Could Jupiter throw the planets into eachother? (NASA)

Could Jupiter Wreck the Solar System?

2 May , 2008

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Scientists have expressed their concern that the Solar System may not be as stable as it seems. Happily orbiting the Sun, the eight planets (plus Pluto and other minor planets) appear to have a high degree of long-term gravitational stability. But Jupiter has a huge gravitational influence over its siblings, especially the smaller planets. It appears that the long-term prospects for the smallest planet are bleak. The huge gravitational pull of Jupiter seems to be bullying Mercury into an increasingly eccentric death-orbit, possibly flinging the cosmic lightweight into the path of Venus. To make things worse, there might be dire consequences for Earth…

Jupiter appears to be causing some planetary trouble. This gas giant orbits the Sun at a distance of approximately 5 AU (748 million km), that’s five times further away from the Sun than the Earth. Although the distance may be huge, this 318 Earth-mass planet’s gravitational pull is very important to the inner solar system planets, including tiny Mercury. Mercury orbits the Sun in an elliptical orbit, ranging between 0.47 AU (at aphelion) to 0.31 AU (at perihelion) and is only 0.055 Earth masses (that’s barely five-times the mass of our Moon).

Running long-term simulations on the orbits of our Solar System bodies, scientists in France and California have discovered something quite unsettling. Jacques Laskar of the Paris Observatory, as well as Konstantin Batygin and Gregory Laughlin of the University of California, Santa Cruz have found that Jupiter’s gravity may perturb Mercury’s eccentric orbit even more. So much so their simulation predicts that Mercury’s orbit may extend into the path of Venus; or it might simply fall into the Sun. The researchers formulate four possible scenarios as to what may happen as Mercury gets disturbed:

  1. Mercury will crash into the Sun
  2. Mercury will be ejected from the solar system altogether
  3. Mercury will crash into Venus
  4. Mercury will crash into Earth

The last option is obviously the worst case scenario for us, but all will be bad news for Mercury, the small planet’s fate appears to be sealed. So what’s the likelihood Mercury could crash into the Earth? If it did, the asteroid that most likely wiped out the dinosaurs will seem like a drop in the ocean compared with a planet 4880 km in diameter slamming into us. There will be very little left after this wrecking ball impact.

But here’s the kicker: There is only a 1% chance that these gravitational instabilities of the inner Solar System are likely to cause any kind of chaos before the Sun turns into a Red Giant and swallows Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars in 7 billion years time. So, no need to look out for death-wish Mercury quite yet… there’s a very low chance that any of this will happen. But some good news for Mars; the researchers have also found that if the chaos does ensue, the Red Planet may be flung out of the Solar System, possibly escaping our expanding Sun. So, let’s get those Mars colonies started! Well, within the next few billions of years anyhow…

These results by Batygin and Laughlin will be published in The Astrophysical Journal.

Source: Daily Galaxy

Here are some facts on Mercury.


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Al Hall
Member
Al Hall
May 2, 2008 5:04 PM

Whew!!… So we have time…. smile

Seriously… Fraser, Ian and Nancy (and anyone else I may have missed),

I am very happy that I stumbled upon this site. I find it informative, imaginative and entertaining. I also enjoy the occasional heated debate.. As long as we keep politics, religion, personal attacks and spam out of it. I hope that you guys don’t mind my occasional rants.

P.s. I discovered Bad Astronomy a couple of years ago. I highly recommend it to anyone reading this.

Al Hall
Member
Al Hall
May 2, 2008 5:25 PM

Oops!.. Forgot to mention to anyone reading this: I don’t endorse any sponsors to this or the Bad Astronomy website.. smile

Al Hall
Member
Al Hall
May 2, 2008 5:32 PM

Thanks.. But hey, next week I am going on a trip for a few days…. Could you not write anything interesting until I get back? smile

Pez
Guest
Pez
May 2, 2008 6:22 PM

“This gas giant orbits the Sun at a distance of approximately 5 AU (748 million km), that’s four times further away from the Sun than the Earth.”

5AU is five times further from the sun than earth, not 4. The earth is at 1AU, 5*1=5

Olli
Guest
Olli
May 2, 2008 6:57 PM

I remember reading about this on a local (Finnish) newspaper. It actually said something about Venus being a potential “reaper for Planet Earth”. Shame I didn’t cut it out from the newspaper…

zeb
Guest
zeb
May 2, 2008 7:39 PM

I have a question. When the Sun does expand, and if in engulfs the inner planets, why won’t they survive? Planets are tough little nuggets of matter, while our Sun’s photosphere will be a tenuous (though very hot) vapor. Sure the planets will become burnt cinders, but they’ll still be there, won’t they? Maybe our descendents 100 billion years hence will come back and watch this happen anyway.

Dutch Delight
Guest
Dutch Delight
May 2, 2008 7:39 PM

There is only a 1% chance that these gravitational instabilities of the inner Solar System are likely to cause any kind of chaos before the Sun turns into a Red Giant and swallows Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars in 7 billion years time.

Kind of disappointing to read that and realize that the previous paragraphs were rather overhyped.

Al Hall
Member
Al Hall
May 2, 2008 8:20 PM

The media is really good at sensationalizing things… it sells ‘papers’.. smile

Al Hall
Member
Al Hall
May 2, 2008 8:49 PM

Zeb,

I’m thinking that in 100 billion years.. well, let us go with just 7 billion years, our offspring won’t even care (or be aware) of our solar system.. In fact, they will be an entirely different and unrecognizable species as we know of …. they won’t care of us… too primitive.. What do you think of the shrews that lived just 500 million years ago?

Al Hall
Member
Al Hall
May 2, 2008 8:55 PM

Oops again!.. I meant “50 million years ago”…

cynthia
Guest
cynthia
May 2, 2008 9:03 PM

I’d be more curious in knowing how the Sun might react after it swallowed Mercury. I would imagine that depending on the trajectory the Sun might have it’s magnetic field altered or have changes in sunspot activity. Or maybe not. It would probably depend on how long the planet would survive inside the sun and whether it could ever affect the Sun’s core through impact.

Al Hall
Member
Al Hall
May 2, 2008 9:32 PM

Cynthia,
If you or Ian don’t mind, I’d like to give you my two cents worth on that….

if/when that happens… Yes, we will have gigantic sunspot activity.. The likes we have never seen before in the history of civilization.. Might be better to be living on Mars at the time.. And also have plans on where we are going to live next.. smile

Scott G.
Guest
May 2, 2008 9:36 PM

zeb,

While the planets (probably) would not be vaporized by the sun’s outer layers, those layers will apply a significant drag on the planets, which leads to orbital slowing and subsequent dropping deeper down into the sun – which eventually will crush/vaporize the poor little things. For the same reason, the ISS has to be boosted up every once in a while – as tenuous as the Earth’s atmosphere is at that height, it is enough to drag it slowly downward.

UNdistinguished
Guest
UNdistinguished
May 3, 2008 6:01 AM
We could comment on poor Ian’s mistakes and pick him apart if we wanted. However, let’s give constructive suggestions to him – like, go write for some non-sciense orientated publisher. Readers of some general topic source would be less likely to find all the mistakes and believe the sensationalism contained in this stuff. Many…, no most of the readers of this blog, regardless of who the author, have a keen sense of science and science fact. Then Ian comes along and writes about something that has about as much chance of affecting us as me opening the doors to Ft. Knox and telling everyone to come and get the gold. Still, a nice idea for a scifi story.… Read more »
tacitus
Member
May 3, 2008 12:33 AM

Actually, Mercury is such an insignificant speck compared with the Sun that should it end up falling into the Sun we would hardly notice anything (except that we were suddenly missing a planet!).

There is absolutely no reason to believe that there will be “gigantic sunspot activity” or that anything will happen to the Sun that would cause us a moment’s concern for our wellbeing on Earth. Kind of like throwing a pebble into one of the Great Lakes.

Brian
Guest
Brian
May 3, 2008 12:37 AM

Cynthia, don’t worry too much about how the sun would react if it swallowed Mercury. Compared to the sun, we’d be macrocosmic roadkill. Does a car react when it’s hit in the windshield by a bug?

Wes Lambert
Guest
Wes Lambert
May 3, 2008 12:54 AM
Oh Great! higher fuel costs, climate change, wars, pestilence (mostly involving the political soap operatical farce going on in the US as we speak) No wonder that my spendy sleeping pills can’t fend off the bad dreams boogeyman anymore. And now this, Jupiter the bully is either going to smush us or toss us out of our comfy little orbits. Shrinks used to call people paranoid or delusional when they felt the world was out ot get them. And that was an earthsized world terrorizing them. Now, it’s a world with a bazzillion earth masses with a noticeable element of truth in the equation. Stephen Hawking is spot on. We need to work on getting some of us… Read more »
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