Though we may think of the planets in our solar system as stable and fixed in their current orbits, this may not have always been the case, and it may change in the future.
The Earth could one day collide with another planet or even be hurled out of the solar system. Here’s a look at the likelihood that Earth and its neighbors could experience serious disruptions.
Apocalyptic Predictions by NASA Researchers
In 1999, astrophysicists Fred Adams and Greg Laughlin made predictions about the future of our solar system. They used calculations and simulations to model more than 200,000 possible interactions between planets and other celestial bodies over the next 3.5 billion years.
They found that:
1. Earth has a one in 100,000 chance of being flung into space or plunging into the sun—odds “much greater than your chances of winning the Michigan lottery,” noted Adams in a University of Michigan report from that time. The study was supported by the university and NASA.
This would be part of a chain reaction starting with Jupiter and a passing star. “Jupiter is vulnerable to gravitational interactions with a passing star,” Adams said. “Because of its large mass, even a modest disruption of Jupiter’s orbit could have a catastrophic effect on Earth.”
2. Earth has a one in 2.2 million chance of being directly ejected from the solar system by a passing star.
3. Earth has a one in 3.6 million chance of being captured by a passing star.
4. The solar system has a one in 300,000 chance of capturing a passing star.
Mercury Could Shoot Through Solar System Like a Pin Ball
The little planet closest to the sun could wreak havoc in the solar system in a few billion years. Mercury has a 1 percent chance of moving in an elongated orbit that will intersect with Venus’s. Mercury could then run into neighboring planets, including Earth, or be flung from the solar system.
Jacques Laskar and Mickael Gastineau of the Paris Observatory found Mercury’s orbit significantly disturbed 25 out of 2,501 times after running computer simulations. Their findings were published in June 2009 in the journal Nature.
Exploded Planet Theory
The late Dr. Tom Van Flandern hypothesized that the solar system once had more planets in it, but some may have exploded. His hypothesis has not been adopted by mainstream science.
Van Flandern received his Ph.D. degree in astronomy from Yale University, and his résumé included work at the U.S. Naval Observatory as chief of Celestial Mechanics, work as a professor at various American universities, and work as a consultant for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab.
He said the remains of the explosions can be found in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Nick Moskovitz, a planetary scientist at M.I.T. and an asteroid belt expert, told Forbes, there isn’t enough material in the belt to make much of a planet or planets.
Van Flandern cited among his evidence a black residue on one side of the slow-rotating moons and other bodies in the solar system.
An obituary for Van Flandern (1940–2009) on the American Astronomical Society website reads: “In later years he championed increasingly controversial theories. But his 1978 prediction that some asteroids have natural satellites, which was almost universally rejected, was verified when the Galileo spacecraft photographed Dactyl, a satellite of (243) Ida, during its flyby in 1993.”
He told Jim Richardson and Allen Richardson in an interview recorded in their book, “Gonzo Science: Anomalies, Heresies, and Conspiracies,” that he met his first serious criticisms from his peers after supporting the exploding planet theory. He had sought to disprove the unpopular theory when he found greater evidence in support of it.
He proposed a few potential causes of the explosions, including natural fission, gravitational heat energy, and phase changes. But, he said, an unclear understanding of the mechanism doesn’t mean the theory is incorrect. “We still have no satisfactory theories for supernova explosions. We have many models, but each of them requires one of those ‘miracle’ steps, usually at the point of getting the whole star to collapse and explode at once,” he said.
The problem is, Van Flandern said, that if the exploded planet theory were proven correct, it could threaten the careers of many specialists whose work rests on other models of the field. “Several have told me in frank discussions that they would leave the field and do something else for a living if the EPH [exploded planet hypothesis] were proven correct.”
He said, “It’s OK to make incremental progress, but paradigm shifts affect too many careers and livelihoods.”
Video by Discovery Space Videos. Watch more videos on Discovery Space TV’s YouTube page.