Science has now accepted the fact that the dinosaurs were killed 65 million years ago due to an impact from outer space. Could that type of extinction be in our future? Understanding what caused this impact could help to answer that question.
A new computer simulation shows that the ultimate cause was the fact that Mercury?s orbit wobbled during that period. This could have pushed an asteroid towards our planet, wiping out most of the living things on it.
?Our best calculations show that the dynamical state of the Solar System changed abruptly about 65 million years ago,? says Bruce Runnegar of the UCLA Center for Astrobiology.
Runnegar and his team used computer models to map out the Solar System for the past 250 million years. They looked at the perihelion of each planet, which is the point in its orbit where it?s closest to the Sun. Because of subtle tugs and pulls between planets, the perihelion point changes.
They discovered that one of these blips significantly changed Mercury?s orbit 65 million years ago, at the time of the impact. This wobble would have pulled at the asteroid belt, increasing the chances that one of them would have been knocked out of place, sending a single asteroid into a collision course with our planet.
Other researchers are skeptical. ?I can?t believe that Mercury has an effect on anything in the Solar System,? says Mark Bailey, director of the Armagh Observatory in Northern Ireland. ?It relies not least on the assumption that the killer projectile was an asteroid and not a comet.?
The researchers next plan to run the computer model forward in an attempt to predict future disasters.
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