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  Geotimes - July 2008 - Perchance with a bang

Perchance with a bang

Depiction of a planetary collision
NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Pyle (SSC)
Could a massive collision be in our future?

In 1925, poet T.S. Eliot predicted the world would end with a whimper. Two studies in press, however, suggest it could end with a colossal bang.

Two separate simulations of long-term planetary motion — conducted by Jacques Laskar and his colleagues at the Observatoire de Paris in France and Gregory Laughlin and Konstantin Batygin at the University of California at Santa Cruz — indicate that, over time, Jupiter’s strong gravitational pull could tug the inner solar system out of alignment. Mercury’s orbit, which is already elliptical, could become even more elongated, bringing the tiny planet closer to Venus. Such a close encounter could fling Mercury into the sun or out of the solar system — or send it crashing into Venus or (more disturbingly) Earth.

Now for the good news: Laskar and Laughlin both predict the solar system is almost certain to remain stable for at least several hundred million years. And they estimate that there is only a 1 to 2 percent chance that Mercury’s orbit will ever become elongated enough to cause real trouble. “If you’re an optimist,” Laughlin told Sky and Telescope, “then you say the glass is 99 percent full.”

Laughlin and Batygin will publish their findings in The Astrophysical Journal. Laskar and his colleagues’ article appeared March 18 in Icharus online.

Cassandra Willyard

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