Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:
I recently assembled Lego’s Saturn V rocket set, and I have to say it’s a really nice model. It even has these little orange pieces to represent the floaty things for when the Apollo capsule returns to Earth and splashes down in the ocean. That, I thought, was a really nice touch!
But as nice as that Lego model is, that’s not the model we’re talking about today. Nope, today we’re talking about the Nice model, with a capital N.
In May of 2005, three papers were published in the journal Nature which did a nice job explaining some of the big mysteries of our Solar System.
- First (in order of page number) was a paper on the anomalous orbital eccentricities and inclinations of the four gas giant planets.
- Next came a paper on the Trojan asteroids which hang out around Jupiter’s Lagrange points, 60º ahead and 60º behind Jupiter in its orbital path.
- And lastly, there was a paper on the Late Heavy Bombardment, a period of time when the Moon (and also the four inner planets) got pummeled with asteroids.
All three of these papers share a common idea: that the four gas giants of our Solar System must have started out much closer together, with a broad disk of rocky and icy debris beyond them, like a super-sized Kuiper belt. Then, approximately 700 million years after their initial formation, three of those gas giants (Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune) started drifting farther and farther away from the Sun and away from each other.
Jupiter seems to have drifted slightly closer to the Sun, but stopped short of entering and demolishing the inner Solar System thanks to a last minute gravitational interaction with Saturn (thanks, Saturn!).
As the gas giants spread out, they threw that super Kuiper belt into chaos. Some of that rocky and icy debris was hurled toward the inner planets, causing the Late Heavy Bombardment. Some of the debris got stuck around Jupiter’s Lagrange points, becoming the Trojan asteroids. And with so many complicated gravitational interactions happening at once, it’s no wonder the four gas giants ended up with some anomalies in their orbital paths.
This one idea—that the gas giants drifted apart after they formed—does a pretty nice job explaining three of the biggest mysteries about our Solar System. But sadly, that’s not why it’s called the Nice model. The name actually isn’t pronounced like the English word “nice” but rather like the French city of Nice (which rhymes with geese or fleece). That’s because the model was originally formulated at an observatory in Nice, France.
Unfortunately, I didn’t find that out until I’d already sprinkled a bunch of nice puns into this post, and I don’t feel like taking them out.