Limited Lifetime of the Solar System

The following is an article from the science humor magazine Annals of Improbable Research.

by Steve Trimberger

With the loss of Pluto, the number of major planets in our solar system has dropped to eight. If the current trend continues, then come April 13, 3703 the solar system will no longer have any major planets. My analysis, below, suggests several possible causes, for the loss of major planets.

The Solar System’s Major Planets
Major planets have been the objects of study for thousands of years. Their positions and numbers have been accurately reported and have been subject of numerous observations by literally billions of observers. In this study, we analyzed published reports of the number of major planets and used statistical analysis software to identify trends in the data. These trends show a disturbing result, specifically, that the number of planets in the solar system has been decreasing since the middle of the nineteenth century. Extrapolation leads to the conclusion that the solar system will have no planets by the end of the next millennium.

Table 1. Reported Numbers of Planets in the Solar System

Historical Observed Planet Count
Table 1 shows the number of reported planets by various researchers. The reports in table 1 are selected from the literature and are representative. The planet counts have been confirmed extensively in numerous publications  as well as by huge numbers of anecdotal accounts. The data are irrefutable, although, as noted in table 1, the dates of some of the early data points are estimates. Sensitivity analysis shows that the conclusions in this paper are not particularly sensitive to variations in these dates.


Figure 1. Planet Count Versus Year

As can be seen, the number of observed planets in the solar system has varied somewhat over time. A plot of the data in table 1 is shown in figure 1. Points are the noted observations. The bold line is a fourth-order polynomial best-fit curve through the data. This curve shows an alarming downward trend beginning in the mid-second millennium resulting in an estimated zero planets remaining in the solar system by the end of the third millennium. Solving the equation of the curve produces a date of Friday, April 13, 3703 as the expected date at which there will be no more planets observed in the solar system. This will likely cause a significant decline in funding for planetary science and the loss of many promising young researchers to other fields. Action is needed now to address this problem.

The Need for Urgency

We are currently losing planetary exploration opportunities. The ill-fated New Horizons mission was launched in 2006 to the planet Pluto, but sadly, there will be no planet there in 2015 when it arrives. It was simply delayed too long and we forever lost the opportunity to explore the ninth planet of our solar system. Although the end of the solar system is predicted to occur nearly 1700 years from now, we cannot assume that Earth will be the last planet to disappear. The current analysis does not indicate the order of planetary disappearance, though the data suggest that small planets and planets further from the sun (and hence more weakly held by gravity) are more susceptible to loss. As a result, we expect that Mercury, Venus, and Mars are the most vulnerable, followed by Earth. Of course, we have no data at present to predict the order of planetary loss, and hence risk to Earth. Investigations must start immediately to determine the process of planetary loss, in order to determine the risk and to develop counter-measures.

Further Research


Migration Theory
One explanation for planetary loss is related to the increase in the number of extra-solar planets reported in the literature (see figure 2).  The migration theory states that solar-system planets are being lost to neighboring solar systems. This theory is supported by the most recent and most-documented loss, Pluto [Green 2006]. Pluto was the furthest from the sun and the most weakly held by the sun’s gravity, hence the most likely to be captured by another star.

Figure 2. Extrasolar Planet Count. Data from Schneider 2009

Interstellar planetary migration is very difficult to observe. The Kepler mission is searching nearby stars for planetary transits. There is a possibility that it could detect the transit of a migrating planet in the foreground, but this probability is very low.

High-speed planetary migration may be detectable by a sky survey for red-shifted cold bodies. These are admittedly difficult to observe, but since they are relatively nearby, they should be detectable with a large telescope. Unfortunately, present-day IR-wavelength telescopes were built for cosmology, so they have very narrow field of view. This limits their ability to survey for these fast-moving bodies. Further, existing infrared telescopes do not have the collecting area required for observations of fast-moving cold bodies leaving the solar system. New instruments are needed.

“Any attempt to place humans on Mars should be postponed until it can be determined that such a landing is indeed safe and that the explorers will not encounter an empty spot in space, or, worse yet, disappear with the planet.”


Breakup Theory
The planetary migration theory cannot entirely explain the order of planetary loss. While most known extrasolar planets are larger than Jupiter, the lost planets of the solar system seem to be rather small in size. An alternate explanation for their disappearance stems from the rise in the number of minor planets observed in the past two centuries. The breakup theory states that major planets are disintegrating, forming minor planets. This explanation may help explain the planetary losses in the 19th century [Encke 1852], as well as the recent loss of Pluto [Green 2006], both of which correlate well with a huge increase in the observed number of minor planets. It is possible that the recent decade’s tremendous increase in the number of observed minor planets is a result of the crumbling of Pluto. It may be a precursor to another major planetary loss.

Mars

Continuous observation of the remaining major planets, particularly Mercury, Venus, and Mars, is recommended to determine if they are indeed breaking up. Observations should be conducted from a distance for safety reasons. These observations will require a dedicated telescope in Earth orbit for each remaining planet in the solar system. It is recommended that each planet also be under continuous observation by an orbiter, capable of measuring planetary mass to detect imminent breakup.

Any attempt to place humans on Mars should be postponed until it can be determined that such a landing is indeed safe and that the explorers will not encounter an empty spot in space, or, worse yet, disappear with the planet. Mars is one of the smaller remaining planets, and though it is larger than Mercury, it is farther from the sun, so we suspect it is more vulnerable. In addition, it is near a region of space where several planets disappeared in the middle of the nineteenth century, the so-called “Bermuda Triangle semi-major axis.”

Conclusion
The last major planet in the solar system is predicted to disappear in the year 3703. Lost planets may be pulled to other stars or may be disintegrating. Further research and rapid expansion of planetary science education is needed immediately to address this issue. The expense may be large, but it is dwarfed by the risk of losing not only Earth, but the entire solar system.

References
Hilton, James L. “When Did the Asteroids Become Minor Planets?” November 16, 2007, viewed April 8, 2009.

Alfraganus, Elements of Astronomy, 833.

Al-Khwarizimi, Zij al-Sindh (Persian), 830.

Copernicus, Nicolaus, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, 1543.

Encke, Berliner, Astronomisches Jahrbuch, 1854.

Gray, Vincent R., “Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide,” Greenhouse Bulletin No. 120, February 1999.

Green, Daniel W. E., “(134340) PLUTO, (136199) ERIS, AND (136199) ERIS I (DYSNOMIA),” Central Bureau for Astronomical Telegrams, IAU Circular No. 8747, September 13, 2006.

Hatchard. First Steps to Astronomy and Geography, Hatchard & Son: Piccadilly, London, 1828.

Herschel, W. 1802, Phil. Trans. Royal Society.

Marsden, B., “The Asteroid Discovery Rate: Historical Perspective and Future Outlook,”
Asteroids 2001, http://www.astropa.unipa.it/Asteroids2001/Abstracts/Talks/, 2001.

Schneider, Jean, The Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia, viewed April 4, 2009.

Steele, L. P., P. B. Krummel and R. L. Langenfelds, “Atmospheric CO2 concentrations from sites in the CSIRO Atmospheric Research GASLAB air sampling network (August 2007 version)”, Trends: A Compendium of Data on Global Change, Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy, Oak Ridge, TN, U.S.A., December 2007.

Tholen, D.J., Ed., “Asteroid Names and Discovery V12.0. EAR-A-5-DDR-ASTNAMES- DISCOVERY-V12.0,” NASA Planetary Data System, 2008.

Toomer, G.J.(ed. and trans.), Ptolemy’s Amalgest, Springer, 1984.

Wright, M.R., Cosmology in Antiquity, 1994. Data from http://www.psi.edu/pds/resource/discover.html

Title image by Chris Murphy, available on a t-shirt from the NeatoShop.

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This article is republished with permission from the September-October 2009 issue of the Annals of Improbable Research. You can download or purchase back issues of the magazine, or subscribe to receive future issues. Or get a subscription for someone as a gift!

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