Mars and Earth ‘on collision course’

Have you heard? It’s in the stars. Next July we collide with Mars… Well not next July, that is just how Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby sang it in High Society.

A planetary collision imagined by a NASA artistBut new predictions suggest that Earth could crash into Mars – or possibly Venus. It would be a catastrophic event but the good news is it will not happen for a few billion years.

Alternatively, a similar fate could befall Mars and Jupiter, or Mercury and Venus, according to French astronomers in research reported this week in the journal Nature.

The team, led by Jacques Laskar of Paris Observatory, ran simulations on supercomputers to calculate how the orbits of planetary orbits in the solar system will evolve.

They found that fluctuations in these elliptical paths around the Sun meant that close encounters between neighbouring planets will occasionally occur in time.

Collisions between planet-sized bodies were relatively common in the early days of the solar system. Some astronomers believe an impact with the Earth produced the Moon. Others suggest that a planetary collision produced Mercury from a much larger world, explaining its present dense nature.

But there is great order in the solar system at present and no danger of any planets colliding in the foreseeable future. There is a danger, however, of smaller asteroids or comets striking planets including the Earth.

A small asteroid struck the Sudan last year and a comet crash on Jupiter was observed in 1994, giving the giant planet a series of black eyes.

Astronomers are trying to monitor Earth-crossing asteroids big enough to do significant damage. An impact has still not been ruled out with a space rock called Apophis in 2036, although it is highly unlikely.

Picture: A planetary collision imagined by a NASA artist (NASA).

• Discover space for yourself and do fun science with a telescope. Here is Skymania’s advice on how to choose a telescope. We also have a guide to the different types of telescope available.

Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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