heliocentric

The center of the Solar System is not where you think

Time to redraw some science textbook diagrams...

ESA/NASA

This year, we got to know our Solar System a little better.

For millennia, humans have believed the Earth or the Sun occupied the center of the Solar System, but the truth is the planets and the Sun actually orbit a common center of mass — but no one knows exactly where it is, either.

We are getting closer, though. This year a team of astronomers narrowed in on the center of the entire Solar System within 100 meters — the most precise calculation yet.

INVERSE IS COUNTING DOWN THE 20 MOST UNIVERSE-ALTERING MOMENTS OF 2020. THIS IS NUMBER 18. SEE THE FULL LIST HERE.

Their findings were detailed in a study published in April in The Astrophysical Journal.

The Solar System "family portrait" is the final series of 60 images captured by NASA's Voyager 1 that show six of our solar system's planets. The image represents the first time a spacecraft has attempted to photograph our Solar System. NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory-Caltech

Planets and other bodies in the Solar System create a gravitational tug on the Sun, causing it to wobble around a little bit. As a result, the barycenter of the Solar System, or the common center of mass of all of the Solar System's objects around which they orbit, is not the center of the Sun.

Instead, the barycenter of the Solar System lies a little beyond the Sun's surface. But scientists have not been able to pinpoint exactly where this center lies, due in part to Jupiter, the Solar System's largest planet.

Due to its large mass, Jupiter has the strongest gravitational pull on the Sun, and causes it to wobble with more vigor.

So to try and get at the barycenter of the Solar System, the team of scientists behind the April study turned to pulsars. Pulsars are fast-rotating neutron stars created from the remnants of supernovae. They emit electromagnetic radiation in the form of bright, narrow beams which sweep across the cosmos as the star spins.

An artist's rendering of the planets in the Solar System.NASA/JPL

Using the signals given off by these cosmic lighthouses, the astronomers measured the distance between Earth and other objects in the Solar System, including the barycenter, with a greater degree of accuracy than has been managed before.

Ultimately, they were able to narrow down the location of the barycenter to within 100 meters — a tiny area considering the colossal size of the Solar System. The results suggest it lies right above the surface of the Sun.

Knowing where the center of the Solar System is is not just good trivia. Armed with this knowledge, astronomers can use it in the hunt for gravitational waves created by objects in the wider universe which hit the Solar System as they ripple through space.

INVERSE IS COUNTING DOWN THE 20 MOST UNIVERSE-ALTERING MOMENTS OF 2020. THIS IS NUMBER 18. READ THE original story HERE.

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