Science Questions

Can mining alter Earth's orbit?

Sun, 1st Apr 2012

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Question

Andy Fletcher asked:

With all the millions of tons of material that is mined from the earth and redistributed around the globe is there a chance it could effect or alter the planet's orbit?

 

Andy from Folkestone

 

Answer

In order to change the Earth’s orbit, you've got to somehow apply a force to the Earth.  Mining is essentially just moving material around on the Earth;  they might dig something out of the ground, move it to the top of a skyscraper or even burn it and move it into the atmosphere.  Now, this could conceivably have a very, very tiny effect on how the Earth is rotating because if you change the shape of the object, it will change how it rotates. 

But you're not applying any forces to anything else in the Universe, so you can't affect how the Earth is moving.  The only conceivable way it might slightly affect things is you might get very, very minute effects where a slightly differently shaped Earth might feels tides from the moon and other planets.  These would be microscopically different, but could slightly change the Earth’s orbit.  But these are going to be tiny effects on tiny effects, on tiny effects.  So, far, far, far, too tiny to be measurable.

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As long as the material stays on Earth, it will  not affect Earth's orbit around the sun as the mass of Earth would remain unchanged.  Even moving it into the atmosphere doesn't affect the overall mass of the planet.  Moving material from one location to another, or from below the surface into the atmosphere could potentially affect Earth's spin, but the amount of material we mine is a tiny fraction of the weight of the Earth.

Consider the Earth weighs about
6×1024 kg.

Consider the Fossil fuels.  Each year, about 9 gigatons (9×1012kg) of fossil fuels are mined and burnt. 

That means that we are mining and redistributing on the order of \frac{1}{10^{11}} of the earth, or on the order of ten nanograms per kilogram.  And, remember, this material isn't lost, it is just moved.

We do, in fact, make the earth lighter by sending probes to distant planets.  However, this gets lost in the noise of weight gains from meteoroids, and solar wind, and weight loss from hydrogen escape, and particles being ejected by the solar wind. CliffordK, Wed, 21st Mar 2012

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