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Study reveals the delicate balance of our solar system

A new experiment examines a hypothetical planet between Mars and Jupiter that would disturb our solar system and push Earth into outer space. UCR astrophysicist Stephen Kane held this experiment to address two notable gaps in planetary science. 

The first is the gap between the size of terrestrial and giant gas planets. The largest terrestrial planet is Earth, and the smallest gas planet is Neptune, which is 17 times more massive than Earth. There is nothing in between. 

“In other star systems there are many planets with masses in that gap. We call them super-Earths,” said Kane. 

The other gap is the empty space between Mars and Jupiter. “Planetary scientists often wish there was something in between those two planets. It seems like wasted real estate,” he said. 

These gaps could offer important insights into our solar system and Earth’s evolution. To fill them in, Kane ran computer simulations of a hypothetical planet between Mars and Jupiter with a range of different masses, and then observed the effects on the orbits of all other planets. 

The results were mostly disastrous for the solar system. “This fictional planet gives a nudge to Jupiter that is just enough to destabilize everything else,” said Kane. “Despite many astronomers having wished for this extra planet, it’s a good thing we don’t have it.”

Jupiter is larger than all other planets combined and its gravitational influence is profound. If any celestial object like a super-Earth or a passing star disturbed Jupiter, all other planets would be profoundly affected.

The presence of a super-Earth could eject Mercury, Venus and Earth from the solar system. It could also destabilize the orbits of Uranus and Neptune, tossing them into outer space as well. The shape of the Earth’s orbit would also change, making it far less habitable, if not ending life entirely.

This experiment demonstrates the fragility of our solar system and serves as a reminder of the delicate order that holds the planets together around the sun.

“Our solar system is more finely tuned than I appreciated before. It all works like intricate clock gears. Throw more gears into the mix and it all breaks,” said Kane. 

The research is published in The Planetary Science Journal.

By Katherine Bucko, Staff Writer

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