Could Jupiter Wreck the Solar System?

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.

63 Replies to “Could Jupiter Wreck the Solar System?”

  1. Thank you Al! I really appreciate all the contributions to my articles and I’m sure all the other guys feel the same. Sometimes things can get a little heated with other commenters, but generally the feedback is constructive. So keep it up!

    I really appreciate your kind comments, and I’m sure Fraser and everyone else will be very happy too 🙂

    We have a lot more great stories on their way (and a few big surprises), so stay tuned 😉

    Cheers, Ian

  2. Thanks Pez for spotting that, I originally mistook the distance of Jupiter to be 4 AU, so I corrected that but didn’t correct the math! Cheers, Ian 🙂

  3. Whew!!… So we have time…. 🙂

    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.

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

  5. 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? 🙂

  6. “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

  7. 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…

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

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

  11. 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?

  12. 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.

  13. 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.. 🙂

  14. 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.

  15. To dollhopf:
    I’m dizzier than you, I really should get a better nights sleep. You are correct and I’m cringing now at the mistake. Thanks for pointing it out, corrected now 🙂

    Cheers, Ian

  16. 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. Keep it up Ian. You give us wize-ass, sit-at-home, numb-nulls something to complain about.

  17. 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.

  18. 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?

  19. 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 the hell outta here!

  20. I have a couple questions…

    Why is it that, if there is an a gravitational effect on Mercury from Jupiter, that this twist of fate is only noticeable now and, considering how small of a planet Mercury is, why would the planet be cast outwards when the sun has an obviously greater mass…

    The way I’m imagining it, there are two pretty huge, buff, stereotypical dumb football jocks playing tug of war. The knot/ribbon is placed waaaay closer to the stronger of the two… so if they’re both pulling, wouldn’t the stronger guy with the knot closer to him obviously have a 100% sure chance of winning? So why would Mercury’s options 2-4 even exist?

    Also, is the 1% referring to “as-of-now” or always has been this way? pick random numbers 100 times and odds are you’ll get “27” at least once, right? It just depends on how fast you pick the numbers…

    I don’t mean to be picky, I’m just not too familiar with astronomy and, frankly, am just recently finding an interest in the topic, so I’d like to know. 🙂

  21. Nice article. Written by a skilled author who knows how to grab someone´s attention.

    First it says that chaos is lingering behind the nest corner, ready to put up its brutral rule over our existence. Then it says that it is most unlikely that this chaos will ever occur.

    If it is most unlikely ever to occur, I don´t see any reason for writing that article. Fondness of playing with the anxieties of people, perhaps.

    A couple of years ago, the long-term stability of our solar system has been carefully investigated by a group of scientists. They found that the solar system is stable because it is the product of a process which shaped the solar system such that it had to end in a stable configuration.

    I wonder why this was not considered by the author before writing this article …



  22. You can also read it as: it’s 99 % certain that the planets will stay in there current orbits for the next 5 billion years. Maybe better than not knowing what can happen?

    Ian: you’ve swapped “peri” and “ap” (or the numbers) in
    “0.47 AU (at perihelion) to 0.31 AU (at aphelion)”


  23. being still a little bit dizzy from last night I am not sure who mixed up the definitions, me or this sentence:

    “…ranging between 0.47 AU (at perihelion) to 0.31 AU (at aphelion)”

  24. As a rule Astrofreak, never come to a free news website and abuse the writers or their stories. Not only is it not common decency (which you obviously do not have), it is very unconstructive. Personally, I enjoy stories with a bit of a bite, and I make no apologies for my writing style. If you didn’t like the story, ignore it. Or, if you have a strong opinion (another trait you obviously do not have), leave constructive critique. Many of the commenters have pointed out errors and points they didn’t like, but at least they were polite about it.

    Also, the research this story was based on is pretty extreme anyway, and I like to think that there is a twist in the ending. Just because this simulation predicts a timescale of 7 billion years, doesn’t make the story any less interesting.

    So you go find a real story and you report on it and see if you can do any better.

  25. Hi Andy,

    1) The perturbation on Mercury’s orbit is tiny in the short term – indeed Jupiter cannot compete with the overwhelming gravity of the Sun. However, all planets exert a gravitational pull no matter how small it is. (Indeed the small “wobble” we can detect in distant stars can be due to an orbiting planet.) That’s why we’re looking at scales of billions of years and not shorter.

    2) And my comment on colonizing Mars was a bit light-hearted. But should the human race be sufficiently advanced, perhaps our dependence on the Sun may not be as much as it is now. But, that is purely speculative. 🙂

    Cheers, Ian

  26. Hey Andy, that is a very good point, but I suspect it has more to do with how small Mercury is, it is more susceptible to gravitational perturbations. Earth and Venus are much bigger and will be affected only very slightly. I hope to grab this paper when I can find a copy so I can see how this was accounted for.

    Thanks, Ian

  27. There is no gold in Fort Knox left, gone long ago. Must check my insurance to see if it covers the gravitational effects of Jupiter.

  28. Jupiter has wrecked the Solar System at least once before and probably more. The Heavy Bombardment event that cratered the moon, reversed the Planets Uranus and Neptune and created the Asteroid Belt……

    We owe our existence to the fact that Jupiter is the “Big Guy”.
    Wouldn’t the Sun’s gravity ultimately win out in a tug of war? If Mercury became more eccentric in orbit, wouldn’t the Sun’s influence either draw the Planet in to die or fling it completely out of the Solar System on one of Mercury’s close passes?? As long as we aren’t in it’s path, we’d be OK, right?

    Without the extra Planet, could the Sun start pulling on Venus, Earth and Mars more and draw the inner planets closer to the Sun? If that happened, Jupiter would start the Pinball effect all over again and we’d all be toast anyway.

    Better warn the Grandkids!!!

  29. Perihelion: from the Greek peri, meaning close to and helios, the sun. You are right, Ian

  30. Question: Wouldnt Mercury’s orbit tend to elongate ever so slightly as Juplter’s position is at its nearest to Mercury? And, IF Jupiter has that much influence on an orbit of a planet, wouldnt we notice both speed and distance changes now? Just a couple of questions that arose as i read all the comments. As far as the 1% chance is concerned, well, that is a huge chance, 1 in a 100, instead of .001% or smaller. Which brings up another question, how in the world can we arrive at 1%? seems like an odd number to me……(hehehe). Ok, enough for now, back to star studies….

  31. A couple of questions:

    1) How can Jupiter’s gravitational influence on Mercury compete with the Sun’s when Mercury is much closer to the Sun and the Sun is much more massive than Jupiter?

    2) If we colonize on Mars and Mars gets flung out of the solar system when the Sun becomes a red giant, won’t that leave Mars (and all the other planets in the solar system, for that matter) without a Sun, thus making Mars too cold to sustain life? I mean, isn’t solar energy a necessary ingredient in sustaining a habitable environment?

  32. Thanks, Ian. It makes sense that every planet exerts a gravitational force on everything else in the solar system (or the universe, for that matter), but then I’d submit that Jupiter’s pull on Mercury would be the least of our worries. We’d probably also need to consider the following:

    1) Jupiter’s pull on Venus which could potentially cause a collision with the Earth.

    2) Jupiter’s pull on the Earth which could cause a collision with Mars, or even Jupiter itself.

    Hmmm, something else to ponder, no? LOL

  33. Hey , Ian , another great aticle of yours. I like the idea of our solar system’s stability not being chiselled in stone – just a long term optimizing process yielding very long-term optimal results.
    I do doubt your ‘suspicion’ though that it is predominantly Mercury’s size that makes it susceptible to Jupiter’s gravitational pull – check out Newton’s Law of Gravity (where mass and interaction are proportional) and the fact that there are many smaller yet perfectly happily orbiting bodies in the solar system.
    It’s Mercury’s angular momentum – more precisely, it’s angular-momentum-to-mass-ratio – that’s smaller than that of any other body in the solar system. You might call it a lack of ‘cojones’.
    After all, that’s why Mercury has to orbit in the basement of our solar system!
    And that’s what makes it the easiest target for whatever gravitational pull is there. (The considerable obliquity of its orbit doesn’t help, either) And then, there is a positive feedback cycle between increasing eccentricity and prolonged susceptibility to gravitational resonance – in other words, the more elliptical your orbit, the harder it gets to avoid some bigger planet’s ‘groove’.

  34. So the solar system has been fine for the last 4 billion years and now there’s a problem? I have a hard time believing that. Crack pipe astronomy.

  35. We could wait for all these disasters happening.
    We could postulate they might happen.
    We could fantasize they will happen.
    We probably could do with it happening very soon. It would obviously get the starving millions something else to think about. And all those lately dead or nearly dead by all sort of other calamities could have pondered the question why me, and do we have to wait 700 billion years. All of which will not make the price of bread cheaper.

  36. zeb, I think that being in the photosphere is probably enough to destroy the planets, but of course the friction would cause the orbits to decay so rapidly that there would be no escape.

  37. Hi Ian,

    I once again have to thank you.
    This one is the kind I like.
    It makes shivers run down my spine and it sounds so scientific.
    Ignore these Ignorants.
    This is entertainment. I like it how you drive me crazy.

    Sincerly bellinda

  38. Jupiter protected earth for millions and millions of years from meteorite impacts.

    From a legal point of view he has a right to blow away earth now.

  39. Hi Zeus,

    millions and millions actually is my copyright.
    It is only me who is allowed to repeat this stylistic device in discovery channel.

    Ian applied for a licence recently but I think he is also good in fantastic science reports without the device.

  40. Listen to Ian…..
    We are doomed……
    Only a few are among the appointees….

    Ian tell us the truth !!

  41. Great work Ian.
    Thats what I call science.
    I never realized that Jupiter is such a scary planet.
    Absolutely amazing how this boring gas bubble can really rage.
    Oh my god and wow.
    You should apply to make more articles and films on the subjects.
    Forget all those hollywood action films and horror videos.
    THIS is the thing and you are da man.

  42. Un equipo de científicos expresó su preocupación de que el Sistema Solar no sea tan estable como parece. Los ocho planetas —más Plutón y otros cuerpos menores— giran despreocupadamente alrededor del Sol y parecen gozar de una estabilidad gravitacional a muy largo plazo. Pero como Júpiter tiene una influencia gravitacional enorme sobre sus hermanos, especialmente los más pequeños, parece que las perspectivas son sombrías para estos últimos. […] Fuentes: Ian O’Neill para Universe Today y Daily Galaxy. […]

  43. I agree with Fluke. Much better than global warming and solar sails.. Everybody loves a good doomsday story.. 🙂

  44. The “artists conceptions” are getting better and better over time.

  45. I liked the way you put the “twist” at the end of the article regarding the likeliness of this occurring. It was an engaging story, and didn’t hide the facts, just grabbed our attention early on. I enjoyed it, and I’m surprised by the few pieces of criticism – some seem a little hypersensitive about “facts” – perhaps their feelings were hurt when they realised you hadn’t laid everything out for them in a dry, flavourless paragraph, to suit their own matching temperaments.

    ‘Twas an enjoyable read!

  46. Right on, Ignoramus! This story is right out of “Words In Collision”.

    It must have been a slow day in the Global Warming office.

  47. To Rob and John in Missouri:

    Thank you for your support, glad you enjoyed the article. I too am getting a bit tired of the agressive nature of some of the comments. Constructive criticism I can handle, rude and nasty messages I have no time for. Judging by most of the feedback, this one was enjoyed by most.

    There’s more to come 😀

    Cheers, Ian

  48. The article is about possibilities, however remote. Its no different than an article about an asteroid that has a minimal chance of striking Earth. The hostile tone towards Ian is both unnecessary and unbecoming.

  49. I thoroughly enjoyed this article, though I knew from the start that it was likely to have the ending that it ultimately did have. Ian, I appreciate the content. You’re right; it has that little twist that makes it interesting, scary and also safe–kinda like watching Terminator in the safety of your warm, cozy living room with a cold brew in one hand and a bowl of popcorn in the other–scary but fun. Keep up the good work and tell Fraser that I said you should get a raise!

  50. Ooh, maybe NASA can set up a program to see what it would take to maybe one day develop a possibility of…

    …getting back to the moon, and then focus on this Jupiter issue. 😉

    Yes, the story is a little sensationalist, but I really would like to read all of the haters’ blogs to see if they were any better.

    Nothing wrong with a little doomsday reporting. We need to be aware that life on Earth is fragile, and we take it for granted.

    Besides, this can be very useful for understanding extra-solar planet behavior.

  51. I always foget the main fact…… Opinions are like ass holes, everybody has one. Some are just more inflamed than others.

    Opinions I mean. : ‘ ) !

  52. Ian, where can we purchase the Ian O’Neill T-shirts? I would also be interested in the Ian O’Neill lunch box with thermos. Keep up the good work.

  53. It would be interesting to look over the structure of Batygin and Laughlin’s Jupiter algorithym. Something doesn’t seem right about their (1) % (7) billion year inner planet effect projection. Does anyone know if these guys have access to supercomputer time and when will they get published?

  54. The solar system had a lot more planets at the beginning. Earth’s Big Whack is but one example. Did something knock Uranus? Charon and the other moons of Pluto also came from a Big Whack. These were cleared out billions of years ago. From the time of Kepler, people were worried about planets becoming rogue. Before the study of Eris, people were worried about Pluto. Another study said that there was a 1 in 5 chance that Venus would throw out Mercury. The smaller the planet, the more vulnerable it is. It would include Ceres with its dwarf status. While it is the most likely to be thrown into a new orbit by Jupiter, I won’t hold my breath or wait for a Scifi Saturday Night Movie of the Week of hit heading towards Earth. No one steal my idea without playing me for it. lol

  55. Dear Ian,

    you are my boy.
    Please do not listen to those bad bad children that tell you something about yourself.
    What do they know about your hard work, the tough life, the endless travails, sleepless nights you have to produce your masterpieces here ?

    And you are absolutely right. It is so easy to critisize, but who can actually write such super duper, wow and oh my god science articles like you can ?

    None of these anonymous trouble makers, I am sure.

    Wear the glasses that filter the filth and enjoy your great writing confirmed by your real buddies.

    your fan olivia

  56. Always though that Jovian bad boy was trouble……………..

  57. I agree with Ian, lets get the space colonies started!
    thanks for the info, didnt know that, hey another thing for these idiot crackpot doomsayers to feast on
    or something like that

  58. Hey, nice tips. I’ll buy a bottle of beer to the person from that chat who told me to visit your site 🙂

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