Theory of secular chaos and Mercury's orbit

Yoram Lithwick*, Yanqin Wu

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

82 Scopus citations


We study the chaotic orbital evolution of planetary systems, focusing on secular (i.e., orbit-averaged) interactions, which dominate on long timescales. We first focus on the evolution of a test particle that is forced by multiple planets. To linear order in eccentricity and inclination, its orbit precesses with constant frequencies. But nonlinearities modify the frequencies, and can shift them into and out of resonance with either the planets' eigenfrequencies (forming eccentricity or inclination secular resonances), or with linear combinations of those frequencies (forming mixed high-order secular resonances). The overlap of these nonlinear secular resonances drives secular chaos. We calculate the locations and widths of nonlinear secular resonances, display them together on a newly developed map (the "map of the mean momenta"), and find good agreement between analytical and numerical results. This map also graphically demonstrates how chaos emerges from overlapping secular resonances. We then apply this newfound understanding to Mercury to elucidate the origin of its orbital chaos. We find that since Mercury's two free precession frequencies (in eccentricity and inclination) lie within ∼25% of two other eigenfrequencies in the solar system (those of the Jupiter-dominated eccentricity mode and the Venus-dominated inclination mode), secular resonances involving these four modes overlap and cause Mercury's chaos. We confirm this with N-body integrations by showing that a slew of these resonant angles alternately librate and circulate. Our new analytical understanding allows us to calculate the criterion for Mercury to become chaotic: Jupiter and Venus must have eccentricity and inclination of a few percent. The timescale for Mercury's chaotic diffusion depends sensitively on the forcing. As it is, Mercury appears to be perched on the threshold for chaos, with an instability timescale comparable to the lifetime of the solar system.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number31
JournalAstrophysical Journal
Issue number1
StatePublished - Sep 20 2011


  • chaos
  • planets and satellites: dynamical evolution and stability

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Astronomy and Astrophysics
  • Space and Planetary Science


Dive into the research topics of 'Theory of secular chaos and Mercury's orbit'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this