So my question is that, is not a lie that we are flying away from the sun slowly, that is increasing by time because the sun loss mass, so when the scientist usually talk that we will get swallow by Sun when it get red giant, do they count on this? I mean, we can get far enough to survive or they just calculate with the actual orbit?

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    $\begingroup$ Of possible enjoyment: Cixin Liu, "The Wandering Earth" $\endgroup$ Jun 1, 2017 at 13:06

2 Answers 2


The answer is yes, there are many authors who do take mass loss from stars into account when trying to work out the fate of their planetary systems. Examples include Schroder & Smith 2008; Adams et al. (2013); Adams & Bloch (2013).

It is thought that (e.g. Kalirai et al. 2008) that the Sun will lose half its mass by the time it ends up as a white dwarf. Almost all of this mass loss occurs in the final hundred million years or so (in just over 7.5 billion years time) whilst the Sun is on the red giant branch (RGB) and asymptotic giant branch (AGB). The mass loss that occurs before then is small in comparison - about $10^{-13}$ of a solar mass every year (see Noerdlinger 2008), so losing less than 1% of its mass prior to the RGB.

Consideration of conservation of angular momentum alone leads to the idea that $M(t)R$ is constant, where $M(t)$ is the mass of the Sun as a function of time and $R$ is the semi-major axis of a planetary orbit. Thus prior to the RGB phase, the Earth's orbit expands by maybe 1.4 cm per year, or by a total of $7\times 10^{-4}$ au prior to the RGB.

However, during and after the RGB we see that the Earth ends up with an orbital radius of $\sim 1.5$ au (or in solar units, about 290 $R_{\odot}$) after the RGB and maybe 430 $R_{\odot}$ after the AGB. So, whilst the Sun is in the RGB/AGB phase and losing mass, the Earth moves outwards from about 215 to 430$ R_{\odot}$. Meanwhile, as it ascends the RGB, the Sun will likely increase in size to about $200 R_{\odot}$. Therefore it is a close-run thing as to whether the Earth will be engulfed within the outer envelope of the evolved Sun. Major uncertainties include just exactly how big the Sun will get, how much mass it will lose on the RGB and then on the AGB, and it turns out that the time-profile of the mass loss (which will happen in pulses, rather than continuously) may also play a role.

The plot below (from Schroder & Smith 2008) may help to make some sense of this. It shows the (log) of the radius of the Sun versus time in the RGB and AGB phases as it loses mass. Also shown with a dashed line is the orbital radius of the Earth. Fractions written on the plot show what fraction of the Sun's present mass remains.

Evolution of the Sun

However, even if the Earth escapes immediate engulfment, the Sun would be several thousand times more luminous than it is today, so the temperatures at the surface of the Earth could reach $>1000$ Celsius even if it stays an astronomical unit away from the Sun's surface.

A further issue is the effects of tidal dissipation. The Earth will be dragged back by tidal bulges induced in the Sun's extended envelope. The rate at which angular momentum is lost is however exquisitely sensitive to the exact radius of the Sun and the radius of the Earth's orbit, to the extent that their orders of magnitude uncertainty in whether the Earth will be dragged into the Sun's envelope even before it reaches the tip of the RGB (this is what Schroder & Smith 2008 claim) or whether the loss rates will be too low to have much effect. It all depends on how much mass loss there is (Schroder & Smith use a slightly lower estimate than above) and therefore what radius the Earth reaches and what the final radius of the Sun becomes.

At the moment I would say there is sufficient uncertainty that the fate of the Earth is undecided, but it will unarguably be uninhabitable.

  • $\begingroup$ Thanks for your time and your long well-explained answer, appreciate it! And, if Earth will be 1000 C is there any formula i can take to know where will be the temperature good enough to have liquid water? Or habitable zone? $\endgroup$ Jun 1, 2017 at 9:35
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    $\begingroup$ @AlbertoMartínez If the temperature if hotter than 1000C (and the atmosphere has boiled away), there won't be any liquid water. $\endgroup$
    – ProfRob
    Jun 1, 2017 at 11:53
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    $\begingroup$ I think @AlbertoMartínez means, where would the habitable zone be? $\endgroup$ Jun 2, 2017 at 20:17
  • $\begingroup$ @AlbertoMartínez If the sun is 1000x as bright then a planet at $\sqrt{1000}$ AU will experience the same amount of solar radiation as the Earth does now. So roughly where Neptune or Pluto is now. $\endgroup$ Apr 14, 2019 at 20:54
  • $\begingroup$ Can the umanity live underground to find protection from the high temperatures, during the red giant sun? $\endgroup$
    – blob
    Aug 30, 2022 at 11:04

The time frames on these two phenomenon are quite distinct.

It will take approximately 5 billion years for the sun to reach this red giant phase.

Now at the speed of earth drifts away, and taken into account the mass loss:

By fusion, the sun "burns" about 564 million tons hydrogen per second, resulting in 559.7 million tons of helium. The loss of mass, about 4.3 million tons per second, is transformed into energy. But don't worry, it's only 0.0000000000000000002 percent of the sun's entire mass.

Plus it's kind of negligible how the earth drifts away in the present years, even if it could change drastically, but we know nothing about this.

From Wikipedia:

In 1989, Jacques Laskar's work indicated that the Earth's orbit (as well as the orbits of all the inner planets) can become chaotic and that an error as small as 15 meters in measuring the initial position of the Earth today would make it impossible to predict where the Earth would be in its orbit in just over 100 million years' time

So there are possibilities the earth will escape its fate:

  • if things stay roughly the same it won't (orbit go on expanding the way it does now, with sun mass loss taken into account)
  • its possible future civilizations will continue to exist, see a need to keep it and have sufficient technology to do so, so they will "move" it in the right place to avoid it.
  • its possible gravitational instability will do the job and sling the earth out of the sun's outer layers.
  • $\begingroup$ Even if there are no survivors left, we can't know if earth can stay away from molten or even being eaten by Sun? (Thanks for your answer) $\endgroup$ Jun 1, 2017 at 6:45
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    $\begingroup$ This amount of mass loss now on the main sequence is quite irrelevant to what the OP wants to know. $\endgroup$
    – ProfRob
    Jun 1, 2017 at 8:47
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    $\begingroup$ @RobJeffries From the way I read the question, it sounds perfectly relevant. OP wanted to know if current predictions accounted for the Earth's slow drift away from Sun based on the Sun's current mass loss. The answer, as Chomel points out, is that the Sun's current mass loss is extremely negligible and won't really have an effect on the Earth's orbit by the time the Sun expand as a red giant. I think he could've stated this point more clearly, but quoting the current Sun's mass loss rate is relevant to the question I believe. $\endgroup$
    – zephyr
    Jun 1, 2017 at 14:24
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    $\begingroup$ @RobJeffries The question specifically mentions taking into account "the sun loss mass" when talking about when "we will get swallow by Sun when it get red giant". The RGB happens fairly early on in the post-MS evolution so to me the question is asking about all mass loss that occurs before the RGB phase and whether that will save us from consumption during the RGB phase. Any mass loss during AGB is irrelevant as the question asks about potential consumption during RGB. But that's just my two cents about how I interpreted the question. $\endgroup$
    – zephyr
    Jun 1, 2017 at 14:43
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    $\begingroup$ @RobJeffries What? The question is about when "we will be consumed by Sun". Of course the Sun does not get consumed. It is the one doing the consuming of Earth during the RGB phase. At this point though, this is turning into a conversation so I'll end my responses here. $\endgroup$
    – zephyr
    Jun 1, 2017 at 15:38

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