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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

 

Will Mercury Hit Earth Someday?

‘First, the bad news: the inner solar system is unstable. Given enough time, Jupiter’s gravity could yank Mercury out of its present orbit.

Two new computer simulations of long-term planetary motion — one by Jacques Laskar (Paris Observatory), the other by Konstantin Batygin and Gregory Laughlin (University of California, Santa Cruz) — have both reached the same disturbing conclusion.

Says Laughlin, “The solar system isn’t as stable as we’d thought.” Both teams have found that Jupiter’s gravity can increase Mercury’s orbital eccentricity over time. Mercury’s path around the Sun is already nearly as elliptical as Pluto’s. But Jupiter can make Mercury’s orbit so out of round that it overlaps the path of Venus. A close encounter between them could send the innermost planet careening off wildly.

“Once Mercury crosses Venus’s orbit,” Laughlin says, “Mercury is in serious trouble.”

So is Earth.’




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