Jupiter: Friend or Foe?
The traditional belief that Jupiter acts as a celestial shield, deflecting asteroids and comets away from the inner Solar System, has been challenged by the first in a series of studies evaluating the impact risk to the Earth posed by different groups of object. Understanding how Jupiter affects impact rates is important because asteroid and comet impacts can have profound implications for life on Earth. In the past, impacts may have delivered important pre-cursor molecules for the origin of life on our planet. Impacts have also caused devastating mass extinctions, dramatically effecting the development and evolution of life on Earth.
Dr Horner, from the UK's Open University (OU), said, "The idea that a Jupiter-like planet plays an important role in lessening the impact risk on potentially habitable planets is a common belief but there has only really been one study done on this in the past, which looked at the hazard due to the Long Period Comets. We are carrying out an ongoing series of studies of the impact risks in planetary systems, starting off by looking at our own Solar System, since we know the most about it!"
The team at the OU developed a computer model that could track the paths of 100,000 Centaurs around the Solar System over 10 million years. The simulation was run five times: once with Jupiter at its current mass, once without a Jupiter, and then with planets of three-quarters, a half and a quarter the mass of Jupiter (for comparison, Saturn is about a third of the mass of Jupiter). The team found that the impact rate in a Solar System with a planet like our Jupiter is about comparable to the case where there is no Jupiter at all. However, when the mass of Jupiter was between these two extremes, the Earth suffered an increased number of impacts from the JFCs.
The study shows that if there is no giant planet present, the JFCs will not be diverted onto Earth-crossing orbits, so the impact rate at the Earth is low. A Saturn-mass planet would have the gravitational pull to inject objects onto Earth-crossing orbits, but would not be massive enough to easily eject objects from the Solar System. This means that there would be more objects on Earth-crossing orbits at any given time, and therefore more impacts. However, a planet with Jupiter's vast mass can give objects the gravitational boost to eject them from the Solar System. Therefore, if Jupiter deflects JFCs to an Earth-crossing orbit, it may well later sweep them right out of the Solar System and off the collision course with the Earth.
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