Friday, March 21, 2014

What happens when the poles flip?

Uranus with its moons and rings. Credit: Hubble

Have you heard the startling news that the Earth's poles might flip?

When will this happen? Can this happen?

First, there's no secret planet hurtling through the Solar System causing chaos and orbital disturbances.

So could the Earth spontaneously physically flip over? Some planets have already been tilted and flipped.

Take a look at Uranus. Its orbital tilt is 98-degrees. We assume the planet started with the same tilt as the rest of the Solar System, and some event in the ancient past caused it to fall over.

It could have collided with another planet, billions of years ago, or gravitational interactions with other giant planets pushed it over.

And then there's Venus, its axial tilt is 177-degrees. That's essentially upside down. Venus is turning in the opposite direction from every other planet in the Solar System.

Standing on the surface of Venus, you would see the Sun rise in the West and set in the East. Astronomers don't know why this happened, perhaps it was gravitational interactions or a collision with another planet.

To actually flip a planet off its axis would take an event so catastrophic that it would devastate the planet.

Don't worry, as far as we know, those kinds of events and interactions stopped happening billions of years ago.

Schematic illustration of Earth’s magnetic field. Credit: Peter Reid

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