In some of the simulations, it yeets us from the solar system entirely.
Amidst the current events happening around the world, there is likely no shortage of concerns to occupy your mind. However, a recent study has explored the calamitous consequences that would arise from the existence of a hypothetical planet in our solar system, including its impact on Earth.
Within our solar system, there exists a significant size gap between the terrestrial planets, such as Earth and Mars, and the smallest of the ice giants, Neptune. This contrast is not typical of other solar systems, where super-Earths, a type of planet with greater mass than Earth but smaller than Neptune, are prevalent and considered to be the most frequent exoplanet found in our galaxy.
Stephen Kane, an astrophysicist from the University of California, Riverside, was interested in exploring the impact a super-Earth would have on our solar system if placed in the vast gap between Mars and Jupiter. Kane ran computer simulations using varying mass and position values for the hypothetical planet.
A super-Earth would have terrible consequences for the rest of us. Image credit: Dario Sabljak/shutterstock.com
Kane found that, in short, the existence of a super-Earth in our solar system would have catastrophic consequences, rendering the human race extinct.
He explains that the gravitational force exerted on Jupiter results in several planets being displaced from their original positions. “Although Jupiter and Saturn experience relatively small orbital perturbations,” Kane writes, “the angular momentum transferred to the ice giants can result in their ejection from the system at key resonance locations of the additional planet.”
Earth would also be impacted by the super-Earth’s gravitational pull. In some simulations, Earth is thrown out of the solar system. In other simulations, Earth and Venus are ejected from the solar system due to their increasingly eccentric orbits caused by the gravitational influence of the super-Earth.
Kane notes that our gas giants, including Jupiter, might have played a role in preventing the formation of super-Earths in our solar system. Although not having a super-Earth in our solar system means we miss the opportunity to study and learn from it, the absence of it can also prevent potential instability from arising in the system.
In terms of the search for exoplanets and alien life, this study shows that gas giants like Jupiter can have a stabilizing effect on the orbits of rocky planets and super-Earths. However, as only ten percent of the exoplanets we have discovered are gas giants, the search for exoplanets and alien life is a mixed bag of good and bad news.
Kane’s simulations underscore how well-tuned our solar system is, with even minor changes resulting in massive consequences. In summary, the existence of a super-Earth in our solar system could lead to an apocalyptic outcome, as the addition of a single planetary mass may destabilize the entire system.