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Glass 99% full

June 12th, 2009

A little over a year ago, I wrote two posts (one, two) that described (then) undergraduate student Konstantin Batygin’s work on the classical problem of the dynamical stability of the solar system. Konstantin and I were amazed to discover that the inner planets can be destabilized within the next 5 billion years by a linear secular resonance that brings Mercury’s orbital precession into sync with Jupiter’s — a state of affairs that’s akin to firing the starting gun at a Figure 8 race:

And it wasn’t only Mercury that ran into problems. At t=822 million years, shortly after Mercury’s entrance into a zone of severe chaos, Mars — rovers and all — was summarily ejected from the Solar System.

Just after we submitted our paper to the Astrophysical Journal, we learned that we’d been scooped by LeVerrier’s heir in Paris, Jacques Laskar, who had independently submitted a paper drawing essentially the same conclusions to Icarus.

The papers from last year did not include the effect of general relativistic precession. It seemed prudent to first tackle the classical N-body problem. Ironically, the fact that Mercury’s precession is sped up by General Relativity provides a very significant improvement in the stability of the solar system — “Einstein saves the day.”

A paper in this week’s issue of Nature by Laskar and computer engineer Mickael Gastineu brings effective finality. Laskar and Gastineu used the JADE supercomputer at the French National Computing Center to integrate a staggering 2,501 orbital solutions of the full solar system, each of 5 billion year duration. The integrations include general relativity, the gravitational effect of the Earth-Moon binary, and use an ultra-precise ephemeris. They make millimetric changes to Mercury’s orbit and take advantage of the butterfly effect to gain a statistical assessment of the solar system’s prospects.

And the final answer?

There’s a 1% chance that Mercury’s orbit will be destabilized within the next 5 Billion years. It’s possible (although considerably less likely) that Earth can take a direct hit from Mars as a result of Mercury’s transgressions. The paper makes dramatic reading.

Dramatic enough, in fact, that for the past day and a half, I’ve taken a ride on Laskar and Gastineau’s disaster movie-ready coat tails. I wrote the accompanying News and Views article, which has been nosing into the media alongside their results, and I’ll be talking about orbital dynamics, the history of the few-body problem and planetary collisions later today on NPR’s Science Friday. Listen in if you’d like, or check out the podcast when it comes out.

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  1. June 12th, 2009 at 20:02 | #1

    I’m sure there’s a small sci-fi story waiting to be written about an intelligent species that emerges just as its home system goes haywire after billions of years of apparent stability.

  2. June 13th, 2009 at 11:06 | #2

    I read the paper, and I was wondering- does their modeling of lunar effects break down for near Earth encounters? The fact that none of their simulations involved lunar collisions or stripping suggests that short cuts were taken for very close encounters.

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