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Jun 11, 2009

Earth and Venus Could Smash Together--In 3.5 Billion Years

According to a study released Wednesday in Nature, a force known as orbital chaos could "cause our Solar System to go haywire," leading Earth to smash into Venus or possibly Mars, the AFP reports. Most likely, the sun and solar system will continue on for another five billion years. At that point, the sun will become a red giant and engulf the inner planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars).

But it turns out that we can't predict the course of celestial mechanics--the motion of our planets--more than a few tens of millions of years into the future, said Jacques Laskar, a researcher at the Observatoire de Paris and lead author of the study, in the report. That led to some fancy computer modeling using Einstein's theory of general relativity, which hadn't been done before.

Laskar's group ran over 2,700 computer simulations. They found that over 200 of them caused the four inner planets and the sun to be in a five-way accident, with Earth "being smashed to pieces" in several dozen of them a few billion years from now. The likely culprit? Mercury, which has a lopsided orbit and the smallest mass--meaning that it could (eventually) be easily destabilized, causing a chain reaction.

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