The Final Piece In The Solar System-Stability Puzzle?

A team in France announced today a new explanation that might be the final piece in the solar system stability puzzle.

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If Konstantin Batygin liked to gamble, he would stake that the latest explanation for the Solar System’s stability—which a team in France announced today—will not be the final word on the problem. “The Solar System-stability problem has been decisively solved so many times over the last four centuries that if I was to bet on one thing it would be that this new work is not the end,” says the planetary scientist from the California Institute of Technology, who wasn’t involved in the study. But, he adds, this new study does take our understanding “to the next level.”

The Solar System-stability problem Batygin refers to is whether the motion of the planets in our Solar System is stable. Isaac Newton posed the problem back in the 17th century and was the first to tackle it—though he didn’t commit one way or the other. The same problem was then addressed by the likes of Pierre-Simon Laplace, Joseph-Louis Lagrange, Carl Friedrich Gauss, Henri Poincaré, and Siméon Poisson. Each time a solution was thought to have been found, another question was raised. Now Federico Mogavero and his colleagues at the Paris Observatory present a theory that they hope will stand the test of time [1]. The result could potentially close the door on centuries of work, Batygin says. History will tell if that is indeed the case.

Scientists and philosophers have mused over the workings of the Solar System since time immemorial. But it wasn’t until Newton started to investigate the problem that the tools of physics—the laws of motion, force, and gravity that Newton himself derived—were applied to planetary motion. At that time, the Solar System’s six inner planets were known. Newton’s laws of physics predict that as each of these planets tracks along its orbit, it will exert a periodically varying gravitational force on all the others. These changes in the gravitational forces are tiny. But over the billions of years the planets have been and will be orbiting the Sun, the impact should accumulate.

Newton thus wondered: Does the net effect of these periodically varying forces average to zero, so that the planets’ motions remain stable over long times, or is there a nonzero net value that causes the planets’ paths to change, potentially destabilizing the system? Ultimately, Newton hedged his bets. He reasoned that the motion of the planets was unstable, and thus that the Solar System would occasionally fall apart. But he thought that when that happened, God would jump in and restore order, putting the planets back where they started. At the end of his book Opticks, the scientist writes, “…blind Fate could never make all the Planets move one and the same way in Orbs concentrick, some inconsiderable Irregularities excepted, which may have risen from the mutual Actions of Comets and Planets upon one another, and which will be apt to increase, till this System wants a Reformation.”

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“[Newton’s] idea was a bit controversial, even back then,” says Jacques Laskar, who contributed to the new study and started working on the planet-stability problem in the late 1980s. “[Gottfried Wilhelm] Leibniz, Newton’s competitor at the time, wrote to the Princess of Wales that [Newton] must have a very poor view of the power of God to think that God did not make a perfect clock and that [God] needs to mend it from time to time.”

According to the study published in Nature, scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Harvard University, and the California Institute of Technology observed a star swallowing a planet for the first time.

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