The chaotic evolution of the planetary orbits in the Solar System could cause a close approach or even a collision within the next 5 billion years, according to a paper in this week’s issue of Nature.
The odds are small, but that didn’t stop NASA from releasing a series of really fun “what-if” images (below) …
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Mercury is the wild card, according to co-authors Jacques Laskar and Mickael Gastineau of the Paris Observatory. If its orbit elongates, our puniest neighbor could throw the whole block in peril.
Because its orbit resonates with that of Jupiter, Mercury could become the planet gone wild (eccentric in astronomy speak), colliding with Venus.
The chance is slim, the authors point out — around 1 percent. But the finding — revealed through thousands of computer simulations — was a surpise.
“More surprisingly, in one of these high-eccentricity solutions, a subsequent decrease in Mercury’s eccentricity induces a transfer of angular momentum from the giant planets that destabilizes all the terrestrial planets,” the authors write, “with possible collisions of Mercury, Mars or Venus with the Earth.”
Gregory Laughlin, an astronomer at the University of California Santa Cruz who wrote an accompanying editorial about the new paper, couched it as “a note of definite cheer” in the midst of “a seemingly endless torrent of baleful economic and environmental news.” Indeed, there’s a 99 percent chance that the planets will not engage in a destructive round of planetary billiards, and that’s a good thing.
“With 99 percent certainty, we can rely on the clockwork of the celestial rhythm — but with the remaining 1 percent we are afforded a vicarious thrill of danger,” he writes.
Presumably inspired by that vicarious thrill, NASA teamed up with space artist J. Vidal-Madjar to craft the following smash-up images, which were provided by Nature. Enjoy!