Scientists compute odds of interplanetary merger

Clash of the titans: Artist illustration depicts
collision between Earth and Venus

According to a study released Wednesday, there is a small, one-in-2500 chance that Earth will collide with Venus or Mars in 3.5 billion years.

Using powerful computers, Jacques Laskar, a researcher at the Observatoire de Paris, France, generated numerical simulations of orbital instability over the next five billion years.

Unlike previous models, they took into account Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity. It resulted in dramatically different orbital paths.

The researchers looked at 2,501 possible scenarios, 25 of which ended with a severely disrupted Solar System.

“There is one scenario in which Mars passes 794 kilometres from Earth,” said Laskar. “When you come that close, it is the same as a collision as the planets gets torn apart.”

Laskar and colleagues ran additional two hundred computer models, slightly changing the path of Mars each time.

All but five of them ended in a two-way collision involving the Sun, Earth, Mercury, Venus or Mars. A quarter of them saw Earth smashed to pieces.

The cause of orbital chaos was the planet Mercury, found the study, published in the British journal Nature.

“Mercury is the trigger, and would be the first planet to be destabilised because it has the smallest mass,” explained Laskar. At some point Mercury’s orbit would get into resonance with that of Jupiter, throwing the smaller orb even more out of kilter, he said.

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