Science Questions

Could Earth be knocked out of orbit?

Mon, 20th Apr 2015

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Rod Chapman asked:

I have always been wondering if the earth's orbit is due to a perfectly balanced equation where the sun's gravity is cancelled by the inertia of our velocity, why is it that with all the meteors that have hit the earth why we haven't unbalanced slightly and with compounding, eventually fallen to the sun or broken free from our orbit. Does it have something with gyroscope properties due to our spin, and if so, how much meteoric impact can we take before our orbit will be forever lost?


We put Rod's question to astronomer Carolin Crawford...Beyond Earth

Carolin - The first one that you asked is, what would happen if the earth stopped orbiting? First, letís just look at why the Earth orbits the sun. itís because itís just gradually being pulled around by the gravity of the sun. you know, if the sun wasnít there, the Earth would just continue on in a straight line in space. But because the sunís gravity is there, it just keeps being deflected all the time. so, the minute it stops orbiting, there's nothing left for it to do other than to fall straight into the sun. it doesnít take long to do this sort of back of the envelope calculations suggest itís something over 2 months, less than 100 days anyway. Itís just going to fall straight towards the sun. itís going to get hotter as it does Ė Ginny is looking very dismayed at this news. I'm afraid itís not good news.

Chris - She likes the hot bit, but she doesnít like the fact she only got 100 days to enjoy it.

Carolin - She won't like this hot bit. It gets too hot for life pretty rapidly. Very rapidly, we kind of cross the orbit of Venus, that moves us out of this habitable zone, the safe zone for life around the sun. And by the time you're well into the orbit of Mercury, you're going to start getting temperatures in the surface, thousands of degrees, you're going to get rock melting. And when you get really close to the sun of course, youíve got tidal forces so that the front end of the Earth feels a different gravity from the back end of the Earth so itís going to get stretched and squeezed. And kind of the whole Earth would disintegrate. So, thatís really what would happen if the Earth stops orbiting. But just to stress, this is a thought experiment. So, we come on to the last question about how safe is our planet from losing that orbit. I mean, if you're going to change the Earthís orbit in that way, you have to change its momentum and thatís not easy to do. You have to kind of apply huge external force or youíve got to lose a big chunk of the Earthís mass and there's no easy way. I mean, even an asteroid collision would not lose enough mass to stop the Earth from its orbit. So, our planet is really safe from losing orbit. There's one little point talked in the middle there. we talked about the Earth stopping orbiting. The fact is not going to happen. The other thing that was mentioned was, what happens if the earth stops rotating. And again, thought experiment is not going to happen but imagine a great big finger comes out of the sky and just breaks the Earth like that.

Chris - National lottery.

Carolin - Thatís right. So, imagine itís as really sudden movement and itís going to be a big show. Everything is going to carry on moving sideways. Weíve all got momentum and the surface of the Earth is spinning. Well, it depends where you are in latitude but probably, where we are is pretty about a thousand kilometres an hour. So, everything is going to continue moving sideways at about a thousand kilometres an hour. So, we would all go flying. Anything lose, not tethered to the ground will go flying. Not just that though. All the oceans would slosh around and go sideways a thousand kilometres an hour, and the air. So, all the atmosphere would carry on going and just like scrape everything off. So, it does getting very serious if that happens.

Ginny -   We did an experiment recently where you spin a boiled egg or a raw egg. And if you spin the raw egg and stop it and then let go again, it starts spinning again because of the momentum of the fluid inside. If our imaginary finger stops the earth and then let it go again, would the fluid in the atmosphere, the core and the oceans, would that be enough to get it going again?

Carolin - It would start it moving again, but it would probably still peter out in the long run. I mean, an interesting side effect, if you stopped the Earth spinning of course, you're going to stop perhaps that dynamo effect that drives the Earthís magnetosphere or the Earthís magnetic field. So, the earth would stop having magnetic field as well if you managed to stop all those internal motions.

Chris - Doesn't sound like a very attractive prospect?

Carolin - No. And the other thing is your day and night would last a whole year because instead of Ė when your day is depends on when the Earth rotates into view of the sun, it would just have to be when that part of the Earth came into view of the sun, as you follow the orbit. So, youíve got a 6-month day, a 6-month night. I mean, just think what that would do to your climate changes and the wind patterns.

Chris - Roy Orbison said that, ďI could drive all night.Ē It could be a long journey then, wouldnít it?

Carolin - It could be a very long journey, yes.

Kat - But I think, given the likelihood of these things happening is very small, I'm going to put them lower down the list of things that keep me awake at night.

Carolin - Let it stress these are not things that we expect to happen at all, but they're still interesting to just sort of contemplate a bit.


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Most Meteors and Comets are relatively small compared to the Earth. The Earth has about 2 billion times the mass of the 10km meteorite that is thought to have wiped out the dinosaurs.

Looking at the craters on the Moon, the Earth would have been struck by even larger ones in the past. However, the meteorites strike the Earth from all directions, so their individual impacts cancel out, to some extent.

A very large impact with the Earth is thought to have formed the Moon, and this probably did modify Earth's orbit (and certainly changed the orbit of Thea, the proposed impacting body). Thea may have been as large as 10% of Earth's mass.

It has been known since the time of Newton that when there are more than 2 bodies in orbit around each other, the orbit becomes very complex, and there is no general "closed form" mathematical solution to their orbit.

It has been found that a system like the forming Solar System has a mathematically "chaotic" nature, and probably did eject some planets from the Solar System, and dump others into the Sun.

However, it is in a semi-stable phase now; computer modelling suggests it should last many millions of years - barring external disturbances like other stars passing close to our Solar System in its 200-million year journey around the galactic center.

Due to the chaotic nature of the orbits, even a small measurement error can grow over time into a significant change in the positions of the planets over a period of 10 million years.

See: evan_au, Sat, 5th Jul 2014

Iím not an astronomer or an astrophysicist but I do know that the solar system formed from the gravitational collapse of a molecular could. As this cloud collapsed the total angular momentum of the matter that makes up the cloud remained the same (thatís one of the laws of physics). Some of the bodies had so much angular momentum that they were flung out of the system never to return. Some had so little that they fell into the
center of the system which then became the Sun. After billions of years, those bodies which had anything different than that critical value no longer remained in orbit. However there was some stability to the system so itís not as if the solar system isnít stable. PmbPhy, Sat, 5th Jul 2014

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