We humans are doing a bang-up job of messing up our home planet. But who’s to say we can’t go on to screw things up elsewhere? Here, not listed in any particular order, are 12 unintentional ways we could do some serious damage to our Solar System, too.
Wild speculation ahead…
1) A particle accelerator disaster
By accidentally unleashing exotic forms of matter from particle accelerators, we run the risk of annihilating the entire solar system.
Prior to the construction of CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, some scientists worried that collisions created by the highly energetic accelerator might spawn such nasties like vacuum bubbles, magnetic monopoles, microscopic black holes, or strangelets (a.k.a. “strange matter” — a hypothetical form of matter similar to conventional nuclei, but also containing many of the heavier strange quarks). These concerns were condemned by the scientific community as “rubbish” and nothing more than rumours spread by “unqualified people seeking sensation or publicity.” Moreover, a 2011 report published by the LHC Safety Assessment Group concluded that the collisions presented no danger.
Anders Sandberg, a research fellow who works out of Oxford University’s Future of Humanity Institute, a part of the Oxford Martin School, agrees that a particle accelerator disaster is unlikely, but warns that if strangelets were to be somehow unleashed, “it would be bad.” As he explained to io9:
Converting even a planet like Mars to strange matter would release a fraction of the rest mass as radiation (plus perhaps splatter strangelets). Assuming a conversion acting on a hour timescale and releasing just 0.1% as radiation gives a mean luminosity of 1.59*10^34 W, or about 42 million times the sun. Most of which would be hard gamma rays.
Ouch. Obviously, the LHC is incapable of producing strange matter, but perhaps some future experiment, either on Earth or in space, could produce the stuff. It’s hypothesised, for example, that strange matter exists at high pressure inside neutron stars. Should we artificially create those conditions, it could end the show real quick.
2) A stellar engineering project gone horribly wrong
We could also wreck the Solar System by severely damaging or altering the Sun during a stellar engineering project, or by screwing up planetary dynamics in the process.
Some futurists speculate that future humans (or our posthuman descendants) may choose to embark upon any number of stellar engineering projects, including stellar husbandry. Writing in Interstellar Migration and the Human Experience, David Criswell from the University of Houston described stellar husbandry as the effort to control the evolution and properties of stars, including attempts to prolong their lifespans, extract material, or create new stars. To make a star burn less rapidly, and thus last longer, future stellar engineers would work to remove its excess mass (big stars expend fuel faster).
But the potential for a catastrophe is significant. Like plans to engage in geoengineering projects here on Earth, stellar engineering projects could result in any number of unforeseen consequences, or instigate uncontrollable cascade effects. For example, efforts to remove the Sun’s mass could create bizarre and dangerous flaring effects, or result in a life-threatening decrease in luminosity. It could also have a pronounced effect on planetary orbits. ( Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/GSFC)
3) A failed attempt to stellify Jupiter
Some thought has been given to the prospect of turning Jupiter into a kind of artificial star. But in the attempt to do so, we could destroy Jupiter itself and wipe out life on Earth.
Jupiter transforming into the Lucifer star in 2010: The Year We Make Contact.
Writing in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society, astrophysicist Martyn Fogg proposed that we stellify Jupiter as a first step to terraforming the Galilean satellites. To do so, future humans would seed Jupiter with a tiny primordial black hole. The black hole would have to engineered perfectly so that it not fall outside the bounds of the Eddington limit (an equilibrium point between the outward force of radiation and the inward force of gravity). According to Fogg, this would produce “energy sufficient to create effective temperatures on Europa and Ganymede that would be similar to the values on Earth and Mars, respectively.”
Lovely, except for what would happen if things go askew. As Sandberg told io9, it would work fine at first — but the black hole could grow and eventually absorb Jupiter in a burst of radiation that would sterilise the entire Solar System. With life extinguished and Jupiter sucked up into a black hole, our neighbourhood would be a complete mess.
4) Screwing up the orbital dynamics of the planets
Should we start to mess around with the location and mass of planets or other celestial bodies, we run the risk of upsetting the Solar System’s delicate orbital balance.
The orbital dynamics in our Solar System is surprisingly fragile. It has been estimated than even the slightest perturbation could result in chaotic and even potentially dangerous orbital motions. The reason for this is that planets are subject to resonances, which is what happens when any two periods assume a simple numerical ratio (e.g., Neptune and Pluto are in a 3:2 orbital resonance, as Pluto completes two orbits for every three orbits of Neptune).
The result is that two orbiting bodies can influence each other even when they’re quite distant. Regular close encounters can result in the smaller object getting destabilised and cleared right out of its original orbit — and even the Solar System altogether!
Looking to the future, such chaotic resonances could happen naturally, or we could instigate them by fidgeting around with the Sun and planets. As already noted, there’s the potential for stellar engineering. The prospect of moving Mars into the habitable zone, which could be done by decaying its orbit with asteroids, could likewise upset the orbital balance. Alternately, if we build a Dyson Sphere using material extracted from Mercury and/or Venus, we could alter orbital dynamics in a very profound and dangerous way. It could result in Mercury (or what’s left of it) being tossed from the Solar System, or Earth having an uncomfortably close encounter — or even a collision — with a large object like Mars. (Illustration: Hagai Perets.)
(5) The reckless maneuvering of a warp drive
A spaceship driven by a warp drive would be awesome, no doubt, but it would also be incredibly dangerous. Any object, like a planet, at the destination point would be subject to massive expenditures of energy.
Also known as an Alcubierre engine, a warp drive could someday work by generating a bubble of negative energy around it. By expanding space and time behind the ship, while squeezing space in front of it, a ship could be pushed to velocities not limited by the speed of light.
Regrettably, however, this energy bubble has the potential to do some serious damage. Back in 2012, a research team crunched the numbers to see what kind of damage an FTL drive of this nature could inflict. Writing in Universe Today, Jason Major explains:
Space is not just an empty void between point A and point Bâ€¦ rather, it’s full of particles that have mass (as well as some that do not.) What the research team…has found is that these particles can get “swept up” into the warp bubble and focused into regions before and behind the ship, as well as within the warp bubble itself.
When the Alcubierre-driven ship decelerates from superluminal speed, the particles its bubble has gathered are released in energetic outbursts. In the case of forward-facing particles the outburst can be very energetic — enough to destroy anyone at the destination directly in front of the ship.
“Any people at the destination,” the team’s paper concludes, “would be gamma ray and high energy particle blasted into oblivion due to the extreme blueshifts for [forward] region particles.”
The researchers added that, even for short journeys, the energy released is so large “you would completely obliterate anything in front of you.” And by anything, that could be an entire planet. Moreover, because the amount of energy is dependent on the length of the journey, there is potentially no limit to its intensity. An incoming warp ship could do considerably more damage than just wreck a planet. ( Image: Mark Rademaker.)
6) An artificial wormhole accident
Using wormholes to sidestep the constraints of interstellar space travel sounds great in theory, but we’ll need to be extra careful when tearing a hole in the space-time continuum.
Back in 2005, Iranian nuclear physicist Mohammad Mansouryar outlined a scheme for creating a traversable wormhole. By producing enough amounts of effective exotic matter, he theorised that we could theoretically pierce a hole through the cosmological fabric of space-time and create a shortcut for spacecraft.
Mansouryar’s paper is opaque, and it’s not immediately clear if he’s onto something, but as Anders Sandberg pointed out to io9, the negative consequences could be severe:
First, wormhole throats need mass-energy (possibly negative) on the scale of a black hole of the same size. Second, making time loops may cause virtual particles to become real and break down the wormhole in an energy cascade. Likely bad for the neighbourhood. And besides, dump one end in the Sun and another elsewhere (a la Stephen Baxter’s Ring), and you might drain the Sun and/or irradiate the solar system if it is large enough.
Yes, killing the Sun is bad. And by irradiation we’re once again talking about the complete sterilisation of the Solar System.
7) A catastrophic shkadov thruster navigational error
Should we choose to relocate our Solar System in the far future, we run the risk of destroying it completely.
In 1987, Russian Physicist Leonid Shkadov proposed a megastructure concept, since dubbed the Shkadov Thruster, that could literally move our solar system and all that’s within it to a neighbouring star system. In the future, this would allow us to reject our older, dying star in favour of a younger version.
Writing in Popular Mechanics, Adam Hadhazy explains how it works:
The Shkadov Thruster setup is simple (in theory): It’s just a colossal, arc-shaped mirror, with the concave side facing the sun. Builders would place the mirror at an arbitrary distance where gravitational attraction from the sun is balanced out by the outward pressure of its radiation. The mirror thus becomes a stable, static satellite in equilibrium between gravity’s tug and sunlight’s push.
Solar radiation reflects off the mirror’s inner, curved surface back toward the sun, effectively pushing our star with its own sunlight — the reflected energy produces a tiny net thrust. VoilÃ , a Shkadov Thruster, and humanity is ready to hit the galactic trail.
What could go wrong, right? Clearly, lots. We could miscalculate and scatter the Solar System to the cosmos, or even smash directly into the other star.
Which brings up an interesting point: If we develop the capacity to move between stars, we should also be able to figure out how to manipulate or influence the plethora of small objects located in the outer reaches of the solar system. We’re definitely going to have to careful here. As Sandberg warns, “Ah, destabilising the Kuiper belt or Oort cloud: whoops, we got zillions of comets slamming into everything!” ( Image credit: Steve Bowers.)
8) Attracting evil aliens
If the advocates of Active SETI have their way, we could soon be transmitting messages to space in the hopes of alerting aliens to our presence. You know, because all aliens must be nice. (Image credit: Mars Attacks.)
9) The return of mutated von Neumann probes
Say we send out a fleet of exponentially self-replicating von Neumann probes to colonise the Galaxy. Assuming they’re programmed very, very poorly, or somebody deliberately creates an evolvable probe, they could mutate over time and transform into something quite malevolent.
Eventually, our clever little space-faring devices could come back to haunt us by ripping our Solar System to shreds, or by sucking up resources and pushing valuable life out of existence. ( Image: Babylon 5.)
10) An interplanetary grey goo disaster
Somewhat similar to self-replicating space probes, there’s also the potential for something much smaller, yet equally as dangerous: exponentially replicating nanobots. A grey goo disaster, where an uncontrollable swarm of nanobots or macrobots consume all planetary resources to create more copies of itself, need not be confined to planet Earth. Such a swarm could hitch a ride aboard an escaping spaceship or planetary fragment, or even originate in space as part of some megastructure project. Once unleashed in the Solar System, it would quickly turn everything into mush.
11) An artificial superintelligence run amok
One of the dangers of creating artificial superintelligence is that it has the potential to do much more than just snuff out life on Earth; it could spread out into the Solar System — and even potentially beyond.
The oft-cited paperclip scenario, in which a poorly programmed ASI converts the entire planet into paperclips, conveys the urgency of the problem. Should an out-of-control ASI emerge, it’s obviously not going to produce paperclips ad nauseam, but it could do something else, like produce an endless supply of computer processors or turn all available matter into useable computronium. An ASI may even devise a meta-ethical imperative it feels it must enforce across the entire Galaxy. (Image credit: Stevebidmead/Pixabay/CC.)
12) Making the solar system meaningless
Which we would do by going extinct. (Image credit: Udra11/Sutterstock.)
This post was originally published on April 10, 2015. Many thanks to Anders Sandberg for his many contributions to this list! And a h/t to James D. Miller for suggesting #12.