When Pluto was unceremoniously downgraded from full-fledged planet to dwarf planet, it became clear that everything we thought we knew about the solar system was far from certain. Yes, there have always been a lot of unanswered questions about outer space, but most of us grew up being taught that the planets were pretty much set in stone. It turns out that another planet might have also once been part of our solar system, and its fate is one of those great mysteries – but scientists have put forth some very interesting theories about what might have happened to it.
You might already be familiar with the asteroid belt. This group of asteroids is situated between the orbits of the planets Mars and Jupiter, and it’s made up of billions of asteroids. The biggest one, Ceres, is a dwarf planet much like Pluto, and it’s believed by some that the asteroids in the asteroid belt are essentially the leftover pieces of what was once a planet, which has been given the name Phaethon.
Lending credence to this theory is a mathematical equation that predicts the location of each planet in the solar system remarkably well – except for a rather large gap between Mars and Jupiter where the formula predicts a planet should exist. Therefore, when Ceres and the other asteroids were discovered precisely where the predicted “fifth planet” should be, many believed that it was a missing planet.
If Phaethon was indeed a planet, what happened to it? There are a lot of possible explanations. Some experts, like German astronomer and physician Heinrich Olbers, believe the planet was in an orbit that was gravitationally unstable and within a zone where the gravitational fields of Jupiter and the sun were felt simultaneously, and tidal forces actually tore the planet apart. Other scientists believe that a large body crashed into it and caused it to split into asteroids.
Perhaps one of the most interesting theories put forth, however, is that some sort of nuclear explosion or war was responsible for the planet’s demise. While some hypothesize that a nuclear explosion was caused by the atmosphere itself, one theory says that a civilization on Phaethon used nuclear strikes when fighting with the civilization on Mars. These nuclear strikes left Mars lifeless, and they blew Phaethon apart. It’s certainly possible that Mars once supported life, as evidenced by the recent discovery of a very large underground polar lake on the Red Planet, and it’s an interesting theory to entertain.
We probably won’t ever learn the truth about what happened to this planet or even whether it ever existed, but it is very interesting to speculate, and doing so raises a lot of questions that are worth pondering. For example, what would it take to obliterate our planet? It’s all too easy for nuclear capabilities to fall into the wrong hands – and it’s quite likely they already are. Will intelligent life somewhere in the universe one day come across an asteroid belt made up of the remnants of Earth and wonder what happened to us?
See more stories on space phenomena at Space.news.
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