So he kept tinkering.
After a year of trying countless different scenarios, he started playing with the idea of adding martyr worlds: extra planets sacrificed to save the others. The best scenario—the one that reproduced a solar system that most closely resembles the real one—was one with an extra planet that lived between the original orbits of Saturn and Uranus. The world was roughly as massive as Uranus and Neptune, or about 16 times as massive as Earth. Repeated simulations of this setup worked only about five percent of the time.
But it was a significant improvement over the one-percent success rate of simulations that included only the four giant planets we know and love today. That may seem like a stretch. Turns out, the planets left behind plenty of battle scars from their youth for planetary detectives to try to interpret. This realization was quite recent, though.
For most of history, stargazers assumed that the planets had always followed their existing orbits. But in the early s, researchers realized that something was amiss in this scenario. Just past the orbit of Neptune lies the Kuiper belt, a splash of icy debris encircling the sun. The arrangement of the Kuiper belt objects led researchers to an inescapable conclusion: Neptune had to have formed closer to the sun than it is today. Many of the objects in the Kuiper belt clump together in concentric orbits, vaguely resembling the grooves in a record.
It and a couple hundred of its known companions go around the sun exactly twice for every three trips that Neptune makes. If, however, Neptune formed closer to the sun and then moseyed outward, its gravity would have acted like a net, trapping nearby interplanetary debris in these special orbits and bringing it along for the ride. This matched what some simulations hinted at the decade before. Planet formation was a messy business that left debris scattered all over the solar system. Since every action has an equal and opposite reaction, each time Neptune nudged a fragment, the planet would have been pushed in the opposite direction.
Over time Neptune would have crawled slowly away from the sun. After all, Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus were plowing through the same field of debris and dealing with similar gravitational interactions. If Neptune moved, then all the giant planets had to have moved. The giant planets instead travel on orbits that are slightly elongated and askew.
By , researchers had uncovered a culprit. The most likely source seemed to be a series of close encounters between Saturn and either Uranus or Neptune —a. As the wayward world approached, its gravity pulled back on Jupiter, slowing down the giant planet and dropping it to a lower orbit.
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