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What If the Moon Got Knocked Out Of Orbit? | Unveiled

VOICE OVER: Callum Janes
Could the moon ever FALL TO EARTH?? Join us... to find out more!

in this video, Unveiled takes inspiration from the movie, "Moonfall", to explore how the moon remains suspended in the sky... and to ask, what would happen if anything knocked the moon out of orbit? Would there be instant disaster? Or is there some hope that Earth might survive? Let us know YOUR thoughts in the comments!
Transcript

What if the Moon Got Knocked Out of Orbit?


Where would we be without the moon? That ever-mysterious orb hanging over our night sky has captured our attention for many thousands of years now, serving as a comforting light and, in more recent decades, a symbol of scientific endeavor. A far-off target for humans to get to. It’s just always been there, moving through the lunar cycle with reassuring regularity. But what would happen if our Earth-moon system were to suddenly change?

This is Unveiled, and today we’re answering the extraordinary question; what if the moon got knocked out of orbit?

Thanks to the 2022 movie, “Moonfall”, the questions about the moon, our largest natural satellite, have taken on a new lease of life in recent times. But, in particular, many have wondered exactly how the moon remains suspended in the sky, at all. Why can we always rely on it to just be there? We go through our lives, and most of us probably never seriously worry that the moon could one day fall out of the sky. That would be ridiculous. Or would it?

In reality, the moon carves out its place in space much as the rest of the solar system does, and indeed the rest of the universe… thanks to balance. With the force of gravity dictating so much about where any one planet, moon, star, piece of rock, or speck of dust can operate. In our solar system, for example, the planets orbit at their respective distances away from the sun largely because that’s how the sun’s gravity has determined it over billions of years. It’s a similar situation between the Earth and the moon (although it’s a smaller system), with both bodies exerting a gravitational influence over each other, which keeps them suspended in the void of space at a certain distance apart.

But it’s not as though this balanced situation never changes, and in the real world scientists are aware that the moon’s orbit around Earth is evolving over time. Unlike in the film “Moonfall”, however, the moon isn’t heading towards us… but rather it’s moving away from us. It’s happening at an extremely slow rate, with it calculated that the moon gets 1.48 inches further away from us every year. But, still, over the course of millions (or billions) of years in space, it’s clear that even that differential will have a major impact at some point in the future.

Which goes to show just how much could change if the moon really were to be knocked out of its orbit. Even if it were somehow shunted just a couple of inches or so, the effects on it, Earth, and the rest of the solar system could be significant. And, over a long enough period of time, a wayward moon really could find itself cruising through some other, wholly different part of the galaxy.

But, before all of that, what would happen to conditions on Earth? Could a change in the moon trigger disaster, or might we quickly adapt so that no harm’s done? The biggest environmental impact would be felt with the tides, as these are guided by the moon. The moon’s gravitational influence directly shapes the tides, pulling at Earth’s oceans to create high and low waters all over the world map. In a recent video, we took a closer look at how an upcoming “wobble” in the moon’s orbit could potentially wreak havoc on Earth in (and around) the year 2030. So, with that temporary event in mind, it’s possible that a permanent change (even a small, permanent change) could result in long-lasting problems.

And it would be more than simply an observable change in how the oceans worked, too. The rhythms of the tides serve as a kind of guide for so much of the natural world, as well. Creatures learn to live with the expected patterns of the sea, as waters move in and out along coastlines all over the globe. And, really, that isn’t the only rhythm that the moon’s responsible for, either. To some degree, it plays a part in circadian rhythms, too, with the light that it gives out helping to build an innate sense of when to sleep and when to wake for so many animals. That light is also useful for nocturnal animals, too, even if only to provide some assistance for hunting.

In general, many scientists refer to circalunar cycles, when thinking of all the myriad ways the moon helps to shape how nature works. The migration of some birds, for example - such as the European nightjar - has been found to be specifically linked to various points in the lunar cycle. While perhaps the most famous example of an animal using the moon to go about its life (as it is) is the dung beetle. Dung beetles may not be the most glamourous of all creatures, but they are well known for using the moon to guide their way home.

Were the moon to change its movement but still remain in orbit around Earth, then it’s not as though these links - from ocean tides to dung beetle commutes - would instantly breakdown. The moon would still be exerting an influence over the Earth in this scenario, and would still be visible. So, it would just be up to Earth to adapt… which no doubt it could do, over a few million years or so. But, in the meantime, the ecological disruption, and the potential confusion within the animal kingdom, could throw up all manner of unexpected issues.

But, of course, the real concern would come if the moon getting knocked out of orbit caused it to either disappear entirely (which would mean no more tides at all, and possibly no more dung beetles!)… or if the shunted moon really did begin to fall towards us. Now we’re talking a doomsday quite unlike any other! Forget the lack of tides… now, as the moon moves closer and closer to our planet, we’d experience massive, surging oceans. Perhaps to the point that the waters within them wouldn’t even resemble oceans at all, to our eyes. Our greatest masses of water could become so dramatically displaced that the entire world map gets an effective do-over.

Naturally, this would lead to widespread and inescapable death and destruction, before the moon even reached us for impact. It could be all over in a matter of hours, were it to simply fall from the sky. But, if the moon merely changed course by a much smaller degree, so that it spiraled closer and closer to us, instead… then we could theoretically still be waiting years, decades, even centuries before the collision event, itself. How would you feel living in such a time? Hopelessly charting the moon as it made its gradual descent, and ominously looking to the sky every night to see that it had grown just a little bit bigger across the horizon. The same chaotic seas and changing light. Only, in this scenario, whole lifetimes might pass before the ultimate end arrives, and the moon crashes into us.

It's not exactly a happy thought, is it. But what is a little cheerier is that, in the real world, scientists believe that this particular “what if?” scenario should never happen. In reality, for the moon to be knocked out of its orbit, one of two things would need to take place. Either a massive planet would have to crash into the moon to cause it to shift (at which point we’d have plenty more problems to worry about, anyway)… or a hypothetical, massively advanced, extraterrestrial civilization would need to have developed planet-moving capabilities, before using them against us. Which, at this point in time, with precious little evidence of advanced ET civilizations unearthed, seems unlikely.

You can, then, sleep easy knowing that the moon isn’t likely to be totally knocked out of orbit anytime soon. It is certainly moving away from us, but very slowly. We know that its orbit does go through wobbles, too. But the prospect of the moon suddenly diverting so wildly off course so as to instantly threaten all of life on Earth… that’s much more science fiction than science fact.

What today’s question does highlight, however, is just how vital it is that the balance of space remains intact. Because, ultimately, if it were to change, there’d be very little that we could do about it. At this point, we’re not yet even advanced enough to just get in our spaceships and try to run away from disaster. And, even if we could, the prospect of surviving anywhere else that’s not the natural world on Earth is… difficult to imagine. So, next time you catch a glimpse of the moon, perhaps consider how thankful we should be that it’s there… precisely where we need it to be.
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