As it progresses in age the sun will run out of fuel and die…quite literally. But before its demise, it will shine brighter and grow hotter. Around 500 million years from now, our star will unleash its intense heat upon Earth, causing irreparable damage to our planet. However, is there a way to rescue our world from this impending catastrophe?
Indeed, there is hope. Our remote descendants might be able to harness energy from Jupiter’s orbit and transfer it to Earth. Nonetheless, they must proceed with utmost caution, for even a slight miscalculation could send our beloved planet hurtling out of the solar system.
Earth has endured a stable orbit for over 4 billion years, but its birth was far from certain. During the early days of the solar system, countless solid bodies called planetesimals vied for supremacy, attempting to amass as much matter as possible in a race to become full-fledged planets.
In this chaotic frenzy, planetesimals collided, came perilously close to one another, and were influenced by the growing gravitational forces of the gas giants. Out of numerous potential planets, only eight managed to survive, while the others either plunged into the sun or were cast into the vastness of interstellar space.
The future looks no less challenging. With each passing day, the sun grows marginally hotter and brighter due to the accumulation of helium resulting from hydrogen fusion in its core.
In approximately 500 million years, the sun will unleash such intense heat that Earth’s oceans will evaporate, plate tectonics will cease, and an overwhelming amount of carbon dioxide will blanket the atmosphere, transforming our world into a Venus-like state.
To save our planet, we must employ gravitational maneuvers reminiscent of those that shaped our nascent solar system.
Imagine standing on a set of railway tracks with an oncoming train charging towards you. One way to match your speed with the train is to let it collide with you. However, this approach is hardly practical and could lead to unintended consequences.
Alternatively, consider having a perfect bouncy ball at your disposal—one that could withstand any impact without breaking (please note that this is purely an analogy and not to be attempted in reality).
Now, if you were to throw the ball at the incoming train, it would bounce back at you with even greater speed than your throw, as it would inherit the train’s velocity. While this may slow down the train slightly, it would possess ample energy and not be significantly affected.
If you were to catch the ball after each bounce, the accumulated energy would eventually propel you to match the train’s speed—safely and without any dire consequences.
Similarly, to safeguard Earth, we must elevate its orbit, keeping it at a safe distance from the increasingly hostile sun. This endeavor would demand energy, and fortunately, our solar system contains abundant energy reserves in Jupiter’s orbit.
Drawing a parallel to our train analogy, we could choose a sizable rock (the larger, the better) and direct it toward Jupiter.
By skillfully maneuvering the rock around the gas giant, we could extract some of its orbital energy and transfer it back to the rock, which would then head back toward Earth. Repeating this process in the opposite direction would gradually raise Earth’s orbit, thereby maintaining stable temperatures.
However, if we make any errors, the consequences could be severe. Jupiter possesses a substantial amount of orbital energy.
Through our rock-tossing scheme, we would establish a resonance effect—an occurrence where the transfer of a small amount of energy, if repeated consistently, reinforces and amplifies the overall effects.
Carelessness in this process could lead to Earth gaining so much energy that it surpasses the solar escape velocity, permanently departing the solar system. Once gone, Earth would wander the cosmos as a rogue planet, unable to return.
Though it would retain its internal heat, the planet would be plunged into eternal darkness, causing catastrophic cooling of the atmosphere and devastating all life, including plants and algae.
Astronomers believe that such resonance scenarios naturally give rise to more rogue planets (and dwarf planets) as solar systems age.
For instance, Neptune and Pluto currently experience resonance, and predicting Pluto’s orbit beyond 10 million years remains uncertain. Moreover, there’s a small chance that Mercury might enter into resonance with Jupiter, potentially leading to its exit from the solar system within the next billion years.
Astronomers have estimated that there could be anywhere from 0.25 to 10,000 rogue planets for each star, drifting aimlessly amidst the vast expanse of the Milky Way.
However, these estimates encompass a wide range due to the limited observations of rogue planets, making it challenging to establish precise statistics. Let us hope that our future descendants exercise the utmost care to avoid inadvertently adding one more planet to the list of wandering celestial wanderers.