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Monday
Sep192011

Science Highlight: Scientific Speculation about the Solar System

Say that five times fast.

Attendees at the Extreme Solar Systems II conference, held from September 11-17 at the extreme Grand Teton National Park, discussed the ultimate fate of Earth and, by implication, the ultimate fates of rocky inner planets across the universe.

In astronomy, we can do two things

  1. Observe the systems that we can observe and, from those observations, draw conclusions about similar systems and draw conclusions about what these systems used to be like and what they will be like the future. The classic analogy goes a little something like, "Imagine that an alien came to Earth" (not going to happen, but I'll continue) "and took pictures of humans and then took them back to Planet X. They would be able to classify humans into a few groups: babies, teenagers, adults, and old people. They might ask, 'Are these separate species, or different stages of the same animal? If the same animal, does the animal grow shorter as it ages, or taller?' etc. Astronomers do the same thing with populations of stars. Since, even over many lifetimes, we're really only getting a snapshot of an object's whole lifetime, we can't observe how that life progresses. We have only the images we take back to our home planet; we must connect the dots between them ourselves. So we try to look at old and young (and more massive and less massive, etc.) systems of the same type, to discover what they look like at different stages of their lives, and how they move between these stages.
  2. Take the information we know about a system--based on our observations of existing systems--and the physical laws (E=McSquared, F=ma) to which the system is subject and use the combination to make a simulation. A simulation shows all the in-between times--it provides the line between the dots. It can also provide a line beyond the dots, to see how systems will look in the distant future, or a line behind the dots, to show the baby system.
If a simulation doesn't fit with observations, that's the simulation's problem.
If observations don't fit with a simulation, that's the simulation's problem. Astronomers need both types of data.

At this Extreme Solar Systems conference, scientists discussed what will become of Earth when the Sun enters different stages of its development: the red giant and, later, the white dwarf phases.

I found this hilarious comic.
You can read Science's summary of Earth's potential fates (here), but the one that the literarian in me likes the best is the most circular: if Earth isn't subsumed by the enlarged red giant Sun, it will likely be ripped into pieces, either by tidal forces or collision with Mars.

These pieces, however, could ultimately become part of a disk of rocky material orbiting the white dwarf Sun. This rocky material could, like the material in the protoplanetary disk that formed our current solar system, form new rocky planets.

The progression is thus A-->B-->A(ish)-->B(ish): It's like slant rhyme for the universe.

Reference
Schilling, Govert (16 Sept 2011), "Earth's Ultimate Destruction--and Possible Reincarnation," ScienceNow.

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Reader Comments (3)

Thanks

February 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

Such a speculation might occur especially if the observation is accurate. I hope we can cope with the changes if ever the sun enters different stages of its development.
http://www.solarpanelsinfo.co.uk/" rel="nofollow">solar energy

February 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFrank Hendon

funny comic

March 24, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnonymous

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