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A Genocidal Orbit? -The Solar System's Journey Through the Milky Way

Spitzermap Is there a genocidal countdown built into the motion of our solar system?  Recent work at Cardiff University suggests that our system's orbit through the Milky Way encounters regular speedbumps - and by "speedbumps" we mean "potentially extinction-causing asteroids".

Milky_way_spiral_arms_2 Professor William Napier and Dr Janaki Wickramasinghe have completed computer simulations of the motion of the Sun in our outer spiral-arm location in the Milky Way (image left of spiral arms). 

These models reveal a regular oscillation through the central galactic plane, where the surrounding dust clouds are the densest.  The solar system is a non-trivial object, so its gravitational effects set off a far-reaching planetoid-pinball machine which often ends with comets hurled into the intruding system.

The sun is about 26,000 light-years from the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, which is about 80,000 to 120,000 light-years across (and less than 7,000 light-years thick). We are located on on one of its spiral arms, out towards the edge. It takes the sun -and our solar system- roughly 200-250 million years to orbit once around the Milky Way. In this orbit, we are traveling at a velocity of about 155 miles/sec (250 km/sec).

Many of the ricocheted rocks collide with planets on their way through our system, including Earth.  Impact craters recorded worldwide show correlations with the ~37 million year-cycle of these journeys through the galactic plane - including the vast impact craters thought to have put an end to the dinosaurs two cycles ago.

Almost exactly two cycles ago, in fact.  The figures show that we're very close to another danger zone, when the odds of asteroid impact on Earth go up by a factor of ten.  Ten times a tiny chance might not seem like much, but when "Risk of Extinction" is on the table that single order of magnitude can look much more imposing.  Worse, Bruce Willis will only be available to save us for another fifty years at most.  But you have to remember that ten times a very small number is still a very small number - and Earth has been struck by thousands of asteroids without any exciting extinction events.  A rock doesn't just have to hit us, it has to be large enough to survive the truly fearsome forces that cause most to burn up on re-entry.

Professors Medvedev and Melott of the University of Kansas have a different theory based on the same regular motion.  As the Sun ventures out "above" the galactic plane, it becomes increasingly exposed to the cosmic ray generating shock front that the Milky Way creates as it ploughs through space.  As we get closer to this point of maximum exposure, leaving the shielding of the thick galactic disk behind, the Kansas researchers hold that the increasing radiation destroys many higher species, forcing another evolutionary epoch.  This theory also matches in time with the dinosaur extinction - and it's nice to see theories for that from Kansas not based on "an angry bearded man in the sky did it".

Either way, don't go letting your VISA bill run up just yet.  "Very close" in astronomical terms is very, very different to "close" in shaved-monkey time.

Posted by Luke McKinney.

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Related Galaxy Posts:

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Source Links:

Periodic Extinctions
Galactic Plane Asteroid Interaction


You know, hurtling at thousands of miles an hour through the void of space, it really is a wonder that we're still here at all. I love reading about stuff like this, because it's a pretty good reminder of just how tiny we are, and how little we have control over what happens, at lease in the context of our planet's destiny. Not even Bruce Willis can change that.

And hey, be nice to Kansas! We're not all bible-thumping crazies out here!

Mass Extinction is not Genocide. Genocide is an event that is orchestrated by one group of beings (typically human) against another with the express purpose of total elimination of the target group.

What you are talking about is not genocide, but a planetary collision that could render our environment unsuitable for human life.

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"A rock doesn't just have to hit us, it has to be large enough to survive the truly fearsome forces that cause most to burn up on re-entry."

I don't believe re-entry is the right phrasing. I think entry would be a better choice.


: ) I think it's funny that people even bother with critiquing the semantics (even if they are slightly inaccurate) of an article that ends with the phrase "shaved-monkey time".

One of my favorite scifi novels of all time addressed this issue: 'The Crucible of Time'. 5 stars.

This article scares the living shit out of me.

Thanks dude for recommending the "Crucible of Time" novel on this theme of galactic cycles and extinction. I'll have to check that out. I'm looking for a good new Sci-Fi novel to read. I just finished "The Accidental Time Machine" by Joe Haldeman. I highly recommend it.

Wow... you really let out a lot of anger and steam in that post, in all CAPS!

I agree with I-Tripped "Mass Extinction is not Genocide".
In addition I fully disagree with the UK scientists and agree with the Guys at University of Kansas.

The sun does NOT orbite the galactic core by itself as if it was the earth orbiting the sun...this is fuly WRONG.

We are part of the 'sagittarius arm' and we rotate together all the sagittarius arm bodies the galactic BLACK hole at the center of Milkyway.

It oscillates like a trottle about it rotational plane and so do the arms of our galaxy...and so does the sagittarius arm.
Galactic Giga-black holes in spiral galaxies like ours often do so.

For unkown reasons when we go up and down our position in the galactic arm (again we do NOT move from one arm to another) there is higher occurrance of shower of asteroids or comets (perturbation in the Oort Clud ?? Other perturbations in the Sagittarius arm ??).

It is also agreable that when we go up and down as the Professors at Kansas university sustain we loose the galactic shield and we get more Cosmic ray showers or we are more exposed to Gamma ray bursts or God kowns what ....else.

The figure showing that we move from one arm to another of the Milky way is vastly WRONG.

Anyway we also do not know well about dinosaurs ELE some 60Million Y agò.
Xiculub asteroid impact ??? Pangea VS Gea (i.e. continents movements on the tectonic plates )?? a terrible Gamma ray burst hitted earth planet ??...other ??? We honestly do not know...

Hence to build theories on solar system passing from one arm to another of the milkyway and getting Asteroidal showers is really fantasy ...

Congratulation to the UK guys they also have great fantasy and coud write a fiction moovie.


IS the suns orbit around the galactic centre really so circular? Shouldn't it be more elliptical? IF we are bound to the central black hole why/when will we all be sucked into the centre? I, personally could withstand a GRB of intensity seven, but a bloomin' big rock on me noggin would really hurt!

I love shaved monkey time!

"and it's nice to see theories for that from Kansas not based on "an angry bearded man in the sky did it"."

Very nice

@JOhn Davis: I think the author implies that our solar system could be destroyed by colliding with other galactic objects as we orbit the center of the milky way.

Its one thing to TRY and sound smart by trying to pick apart other people's writings with insignificant bullshit. Poetic justice, call it what you want but everyone, other than you, understood the title's relation to "genocide" and the story.

And you better not be the JOhn Davis from longmeadow.

If the orbital period of the sun is "roughly 200-250 million years" how come it passes through the galactic plane on a "~37 million year-cycle"? Surely it would cross the galactic plane twice per orbit.

Sadly, that is yet another problem with this article. The movement through the galactic plane is not shown on the image because it would need to be from the side.

Is there an actual visual depiction (like a video)of the path of our solar system as it orbits the galactic center? Preferably something showing its motion in relation to the motion of the spiral arms. I can't seem to find anything.

"If the orbital period of the sun is "roughly 200-250 million years" how come it passes through the galactic plane on a "~37 million year-cycle"? Surely it would cross the galactic plane twice per orbit."

Nope, that would be the case if the reason it was crossing the galactic plan was due to its galactic orbital plan being somehow perpendicular to the plan of the overall disk. But this isn't the case, instead our solar system bobs up and down in relation to the disk as a function of a variety of interactions with the material in the disk itself. So essentially the solar system gets pulled down to the disk comes out beneath it and then is pulled back up above it again. I assume it continues to happen because these interactions are reciprocal, so when we are pulled below the disk other material is pulled above it and so on.

The more I listen to idiotic theories like the one above, the more I realize that "theoretical scientists" are just making shit up as they go along.

You fools! You stack one assumption on top of another assumption until you've built for yourselves a large house of cards.

I only hope I'm around to see it collapse in on itself, showing you all for what you truly are - idiots.

Thanks Velocity_Wave for setting the record straight.

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