Was a Fifth Giant Planet Expelled from Our Solar System?

by Ray Sanders on November 10, 2011

Artist’s impression of a fifth giant planet being ejected from the solar system.
Image credit: Southwest Research Institute

Earth’s place in the “Goldilocks” zone of our solar system may be the result of the expulsion of a fifth giant planet from our solar system during its first 600 million years, according to a recent journal publication.

“We have all sorts of clues about the early evolution of the solar system,” said author Dr. David Nesvorny of the Southwest Research Institute. “They come from the analysis of the trans-Neptunian population of small bodies known as the Kuiper Belt, and from the lunar cratering record.”

Nesvorny and his team used the clues they had to build computer simulations of the early solar system and test their theories. What resulted was an early solar system model that has quite a different configuration than today, and a jumbling of planets that may have given Earth the “preferred” spot for life to evolve.


Researchers interpret the clues as evidence that the orbits of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune were affected by a dynamical instability when our solar system was only about half a billion years old. This instability is believed to have helped increase the distance between the giant planets, along with scattering smaller bodies. The scattering of small bodies pushed objects both inward, and outward with some objects ending up in the Kuiper Belt and others impacting the terrestrial planets and the Moon. Jupiter is believed to have scattered objects outward as it moved in towards the sun.

One problem with this interpretation is that slow changes to Jupiter’s orbit would most likely add too much momentum to the orbits of the terrestrial planets. The additional momentum would have possibly caused a collision of Earth with Venus or Mars.

“Colleagues suggested a clever way around this problem,” said Nesvorny. “They proposed that Jupiter’s orbit quickly changed when Jupiter scattered off of Uranus or Neptune during the dynamical instability in the outer solar system.”

Basically if Jupiter’s early migration “jumps,” the orbital coupling between the terrestrial planets and Jupiter is weaker, and less harmful to the inner solar system.

Animation showing the evolution of the planetary system from 20 million years before the ejection to 30 million years after. Five initial planets are shown by red circles, small bodies are in green.
After the fifth planet is ejected, the remaining four planets stabilize after a while, and looks like the outer solar system in the end, with giant planets at 5, 10, 20 and 30 astronomical units.
Click image to view animation. Image Credit: Southwest Research Institute

Nesvorny and his team performed thousands of computer simulations that attempted to model the early solar system in an effort to test the “jumping-Jupiter” theory. Nesvorny found that Jupiter did in fact jump due to gravitational interactions from Uranus or Neptune, but when Jupiter jumped, either Uranus or Neptune were expelled from the solar system. “Something was clearly wrong,” he said.

Based on his early results, Nesvorny added a fifth giant planet, similar to Uranus or Neptune to his simulations. Once he ran the reconfigured simulations, everything fell into place. The simulation showed the fifth planet ejected from the solar system by Jupiter, with four giant planets remaining, and the inner, terrestrial planets untouched.

Nesvorny concluded with, “The possibility that the solar system had more than four giant planets initially, and ejected some, appears to be conceivable in view of the recent discovery of a large number of free-floating planets in interstellar space, indicating the planet ejection process could be a common occurrence.”

If you’d like to read Nesvorny’s full paper, you can access it at: http://arxiv.org/pdf/1109.2949v1

Source: Southwest Research Institute Press Release

About 

In addition to being a published astronomer specializing in variable stars, Ray Sanders has blogged for Universe Today, and The Planetary Society blog, among others. He runs his own blog, Dear Astronomer, teaches classes for CosmoQuest, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

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