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Consider planet Earth in a distant future. Human technology has advanced, although it still respects the currently known laws of physics. I am trying to build a story where:

  • An Event makes it so the whole planet Earth, or at least a significant portion of its surface, is shattered into debris that go drifting into space. Earth surface is NOT destroyed in the process, so that human constructions - buildings, small stuff, etc - are more or less intact. The debris can be of various sizes, from dust to country-sized debris. It is okay that all living beings on Earth died in the process.
  • My protagonists managed, by chance, to escape Earth right before the Event using a technologically advanced spaceship. They are now also drifting into space in the middle of the debris, and they can explore the debris and find various remnants of human civilization that can be used for my plot: that's what I'm getting at, and that's why the surface must not be destroyed during the Event. Their spaceship is smart and manages not to crash into the debris.

The situation I'm describing - my protagonists drifting alongside the debris and exploring them - would need to last at least a few years. What happens after that doesn't matter.

Currently, I've considered the possibility of a "big explosion". An industrial accident of human origin makes Earth's inner core explode, and the whole planet is shattered into debris that go drifting through space in all directions. But it doesn't work because such an explosion would definitely destroy everything at the surface.

Ideally:

  • The Event would be of human origin, no alien intervention, no random asteroid crashing into Earth.
  • The Event would be rather sudden, happening in a matter of minutes.

What could the Event be?

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    $\begingroup$ We advice to wait at least 24 hours before marking an answer as accepted, so that more of our member get a chance of answering and you get more chances of getting valuable answers. Meanwhile you can upvote all the answers which you deem useful. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Nov 11 '20 at 12:01
  • $\begingroup$ Okay, thanks for the tip. I removed the "accepted" marking and I will wait a bit before accepting :) $\endgroup$ – EarthDebris Nov 11 '20 at 12:06
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    $\begingroup$ This idea was used in the fantasy novels The Shattered World (1984) and The Burning Realm (1988) by Michael Reaves. $\endgroup$ – Ross Presser Nov 11 '20 at 19:28
  • $\begingroup$ Within physics is a tough one. Can the MC be the cause? Miracle ship has a force field. An asteroid is going to hit the Earth. He activates it, miscalculates, and the shield is INSIDE the Earth, and blocks gravity. He fumbles to expand the shield, but it accelerates the crust gently away from the core as it expands. The chunks float off like pieces of eggshell. But not an answer to your question as written. $\endgroup$ – DWKraus Nov 11 '20 at 23:45
  • $\begingroup$ We've drastically underestimated the number of moles, and they've eaten the ground between the surface and the core. $\endgroup$ – NomadMaker Nov 12 '20 at 19:30

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Not possible within physics as we know it:

I cannot think of a way this can be done within the parameters requested, as any event of sufficient energy to disassemble a whole planet will:

  1. Necessarily be of such an energetic nature as to pulverize the surface many,many,many times over. The energy needed to just break the gravitational bonding energy of the Earth, for example, is about 2.49×10^32 Joule. This is enough energy to heat the entire planet by some 94000 Kelvin.

  2. Require that every bit on the surface be accelerated away from the main mass of the planet at a speed of something more than 11km/s (some 40000 kilometers per hour), otherwise gravity will simply cause everything to fall back into a new, very hot, planet.

  3. Even if you miracle a non-energetic way to break open the planet
    For example by having a rogue black hole do a close flyby of the Earth, well within Earth's Roche limit. But what such a rogue black hole or sufficiently massive planet will do to the solar system as a whole and possibly the Sun is....nasty. We're looking at ejected planets at the minimum, almost certainly gravitationally-induced solar instability leading to a Nova, which destroys the very same surface artifacts you want to retain!
    But then you are still spilling the contents. Earth's crust masses about 2.7x10^22 kg. The whole earth masses 6x10^24 kg. So only about 1/2 of a percent of the Earth is not currently molten.

So by whichever means you are disassembling the Earth, you will get 200 parts molten rock or iron, for every 1 part of solid material.

And of this solid material, less than one part per thousand used to be Surface, or within 20m of the surface. (assuming average crust thickness of 20 km)

But outside of physics as we know it:

To get viable surface installations and artifacts drifting in space, you would need to do something really strange

  • First successful test of interstellar Hyperdrive. Footnote: Do NOT activate while on planet surface! Calculate range of effect! Do not use without programming destination!!
  • Force field experiment, but the experiment cut the region off from all gravity, causing Earth's rotation and Orbit to cause it to fly off into space?
  • Time travel that did the same, neglecting to remember that the Earth rotates, orbits the sun, and even the Sun orbits the Galaxy, all rushing off to somewhere else than where the timetravel zone was when activated?

p.p.s If you want alien visitors to discover Human artifacts... We have scattered satellites and probes and rovers and landers all over the place. We have even sent 2 golden gramophone records in the direction of not-so-nearby stars.

And there is a fully functional Tesla Roadster (red, with spacesuit, low .. ahem. very very high mileage) floating out near Mars orbit.

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    $\begingroup$ I think #3 is viable within OP's parameters, if you interpret them until they squeal. $\endgroup$ – Spencer Nov 11 '20 at 19:31
  • $\begingroup$ It is possible, see the answer about the Roche Limit. $\endgroup$ – UEFI Nov 13 '20 at 16:21
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    $\begingroup$ Yep. If a sufficiently massive object flew past Earth close enough (we're talking multiple Jupiter mass, passing below Geostationary distance), and left fast enough to not eat all the debris it liberated.... Something like a passing black hole. Still, the process of breaking up the planet will be very, very messy. But for a story... good enough. Remember to point out that there is a vast field of congealed mantle and core material, with a very few rare tidbits of ex-crust, some few of which contain evidence of previous inhabitants. $\endgroup$ – user79911 Nov 13 '20 at 17:43
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You're Looking for the Roche Limit

The Roche Limit is a term for how close one celestial body can pass to another one, and still stay together under the force of gravity. If the Earth was a mass of chargeless dust or non-viscous liquid, at this closeness to another larger gravitating body Earth would begin to fall apart.

But Earth isn't a chargeless dust or inviscid fluid. We have a solid crust that lends some mechanical strength and oceans of water that loves to stick to already-wetted surfaces. Earth won't just fall apart. '

But let's see how close it has to be to be in danger. The equation for the Roche limit is :

$RocheLimit = Radius_{HeavierPlanet} ( 2 { density_{HeavierPlanet} \over density_{LighterPlanet} } )^{1 \over 3}$

As you can see, the only time the Roche Limit is outside the larger planet's radius is when the larger planet is made of denser stuff.

That's not hard. The mean density of Earth is 5 g/cm^3. Many things are denser than that: an Earth-sized rogue planet (we assume these are floating around the universe) made of lead (11 g/cm^3) would have a Roch Limit a little further out than the orbit of the moon. An Earth-sized rogue planet made of gold (19 g/cm^3) would have a Roche limit out to almost 19,000 kilometers.

How would it work?

Imagine an Earth-sized ball of lead passes close to the Earth, but not a direct hit. The internal pressures of Earth, usually balanced out by gravity, are now loading the crust. Oceans will try to jump ship, as will the atmosphere. Would be reasonable to say that some poorly anchored structures, or structures on poor foundations (swamp, mud) might just fly up and fly off like so much dust.

Let's see if Earth splits open.

All but the outermost 50 kilometers of Earth is liquid. It's made of basalt (SiO2), which is basically glass (33 MPa ultimate strength). Imagine it as a 50 km thick glass bowl. The rupture strength is (33 MPa x 50 km = 1.65 TPa) (please correct me someone if I've mis-calculated this). This is holding back a peak fluid column 12,000 km high of material 5.5 g/cm^3 in density.

The pressure depends on how close the other planet passes. Let's says it's close enough so there's a net 1g acceleration on Earth during the passage. That would be a column pressure of 0.6 TPa.

Increase the density of Rogue Planet to gold (19 g/cm^3), and have the approach be almost touching during the pass, and the gravity goes up to 4g.

The glass bowl cracks, and a decent portion of Earths fluid spills out like so much quickly-cooling formerly liquid rock into a new ring orbiting Rogue Planet.

What's left, assuming there's enough velocity difference that Rogue Planet sails on it's way without permanently capturing Earth (v > 15,797 m/s) would probably consist of a lot of things as described in the original post.

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    $\begingroup$ If I understand correctly, the notion here seems to be that a massive body passing by could suck up some of the earth's mass on the near side, but leave the far side relatively unscathed. But tidal bulges occur on both sides of a planet - as the near side gets pulled more strongly than the center, they separate, the same as how the center gets pulled more strongly than the far side, which will also separate. Regardless, sucking out the core will result in a catastrophic reshaping of the planet. It's unclear to me why this would leave any part of the surface intact. $\endgroup$ – Nuclear Hoagie Nov 11 '20 at 19:55
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    $\begingroup$ @NuclearHoagie, a tidal breakup only breaks things down to the point where mechanical forces such as tension can hold things together. A tidal breakup of Earth is likely to leave individual buildings intact, and might leave pieces as large as groups of city blocks. $\endgroup$ – Mark Nov 11 '20 at 22:35
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    $\begingroup$ @Mark Completely agree that tidal forces in this situation wouldn't pull apart a house. But the near side will be obliterated by the liquid core flowing out from the center of the planet, and the far side will basically turn into an asteroid field. I guess it's not totally out of the question for an object or two to survive, but I think it's far more likely for everything to be completely pulverized in the planet-sized debris field. And in the end, nearly everything either gets captured by the rogue planet, or gets re-formed into a new planet, so destruction seems inevitable. $\endgroup$ – Nuclear Hoagie Nov 12 '20 at 21:32
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    $\begingroup$ @NuclearHoagie I don't think that the earth's core would be "Sucked out" It would fall towards the massive body. The core and the surface would accelerate together at the same speed. Different parts of the earth will fall in different directions, causing the earth to break up. A person on the surface would suddenly feel near weightless and witness lots of other blobs floating off in different directions. Some blobs might have a little city on one side and lava on the other. After breakup matter in large blobs would be attracted to the centre of the blob. The lava wouldn't flow into the cities. $\endgroup$ – UEFI Nov 13 '20 at 16:20
  • $\begingroup$ That's true. If an Earth-sized body made of solid gold passes 100km from the surface, the surface acceleration is 41 m/s/s; but the acceleration at the center of mass for Earth is 10 m/s/s. That's a 3g difference creating tension between the surface and the center of mass, and I applied all of it (incorrectly) to the whole fluid column. If I use a mean of 1.5g, that's only 900 GPa being applied to the crust. A denser fly-by object would be necessary to get the right effect. $\endgroup$ – James McLellan Nov 13 '20 at 18:56
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Earth has developed matter displacement technology (aka beaming in Star Trek). It was designed to move resources from the asteroid belt or moons into earth orbit or directly onto the surface in a matter of seconds.
So they built a giant space station, collecting huge amounts of energy from the sun and what-not and aiming at what was to be displaced.

However, either through a malfunction or by criminal intent, the station displaced the entire molten core of Earth into the solar system, essentially a fatal reversal of the stations functionality.

As it happened within minutes, Earth is now only a shell, fragmenting quickly with the core gone. The Earth shell would probably still be in orbit around the sun and - with safety systems in place - humans could still have survived on the surface, but life would be impossible.

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It is imposible due to how planets (and astroids) get their's form at fist place.

If we somehow magicaly remove half of the Earth, the remaining half would immediately start to turn into a sphere (80% of former diameter), greatly heating in the process. This would certainly destroy all the surface.

Same goes for all large parts (> 1km) - they would collapse in sort-of-spheroids (the larger - the more spherical it would be, the more heat would be produced in process). Parts having mass of about 2/3 of a Moon (say continents) would always become glowing spheres of magma.

Smaller parts that would not be turned into piles of stones (from several hunderd to hundred meters across) would just have not enough gravity to keep themselfs intact. Tidal forces of Sun's gravity and gravity from larger parts would just rip (or better say - put) them apart into individual stones/bricks/cars/etc.

So it doesn't matter what Event created this debris - they just woudn't keep "surface" intact while drifitng through space.

P.S. You may have a barn or a two-three-four floor peice of a reinforced concrete building or section of a bridge floating in space (i.e one single object) , but no surface - no lawns, roads or whole ranch (nothing made of bulk materials)

P.P.S. And it would be much better if you are not telling anyting about The Event. Let it be mistery even for your hero.

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  • $\begingroup$ I have to agree with the mystery element. That way, you can even have the MC point out how impossible it is, and still have it hang together for a story. $\endgroup$ – DWKraus Nov 11 '20 at 23:32
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Condition: The event must happen in minutes

Impossible. Really, it's impossible. Consider an earthquake, for which minutes is a very, very long time. It flattens buildings. An earthquake lasting minutes would flatten cities. The destruction of the world in just minutes would flatten literally everything. Worse, it would churn everything into dirt soup. Considering how much mass is involved, your explorer would be lucky to find a brick, much less any other kind of proof of civilization.

But, maybe... if we change the timeline to weeks or months...

An impact won't work, that means no surface explosion of any kind. Too fast, too violent, probably won't leave the Earth in its current orbit, and the energy sufficient to split it up would spread it all over the place. So, no impact.

But... what if the core started to expand? Slowly...

There will be destruction. After all, the mantle is sitting atop a molten soup of fluid and even the most even expansion will cause uneven results. Everything from volcanoes to calderas would erupt. But if it happens slowly enough, it might not be terrestrially devastating.

So, let's consider something along the lines of the movie The Core. In that movie, the theoretical threat of an enemy state weaponizing earthquakes led the U.S. to develop Project Destini (Deep Earth Seismic Trigger INItiative), a tool that would (theoretically) produce focused earthquakes anywhere on the globe.

Except that when they tried it, it stopped the core from spinning. No magnetic field. Birds can no longer navigate. Pacemakers stop. Dogs and cats... living together! Mass hysteria! (Whoops, mixing my movies... sorry.)

What if the nations of your Earth were doing the same thing? Maybe they were simply trying to probe the core and the "probe" exploded, causing the core to expand. The planet's honking big! So such an effect would take time.

And time is what you want (sorry). It takes time to gently rip the Earth apart — but only so much! Because you want those chunks (similar to what was seen in season 5 of Agents of S.H.E.I.L.D..) to gently stay put, both in orbit and generally in locale, such that your explorer can swoop around in between chunks.

Remember, there's a LOT of planet to deal with

A huge part of your problem is that 99.99% of the Earth is everything except the surface. What you have in mind seems like it would be huge — but compared to the rest of the planet it's insignificant. It would actually be really, really hard for your adventurer to find chunks with buildings on them. But that's great! Because you want the process to take years.

"Realistically" the localized asteroid belt once known as the Earth would be a bunch of chunks floating around, hitting one another, and causing a ton of grief. Most of it would be metal, not rock (I think, the outer core might be mostly rock, so maybe it will be mostly rock...). An no matter how gently it was expanded into chunks, some of those chunks would eventually come into contact with the Moon. Now we have the proverbial toilet brush whisking chunks of the Earth around like a whirlpool.

Actually, now that I think about it, the effect would be pretty cool. The Moon would act somewhat like the guardian satellites that help shepherd the rings of Saturn. The math might not work out... but the concept of a moon-shepherded whirlpool in space is cool beyond reason.

On the other hand, what you could also end up with is the surface (mantle) of the Earth broken up and orbiting the swollen-and-now-cooling core. A new, mostly metal (maybe) planet having almost exactly the original mass but now surrounded by a ring system that happens to be made up of fairly large chunks. Astronomically, they'd eventually plunge back to the planet's surface. But that could take a while. A long while.

But, in the end, you'd have the effect you want... so long as you don't want atmosphere

So, we slowly expand the core like a swelling appendicitis until the either the surface breaks up and floats away or the entire planet breaks up. It's slow, because that's the only hope any building has of surviving.

The result is either a new planet with a ring system containing the chunks you're looking for or a localized asteroid field made up of the mass of the planet that eventually becomes this whomping cool whirlpool shepherded by Luna, the Guardian Moon.

What you do NOT have is atmosphere. Anywhere. There's no way to keep it around the chunks in any circumstance. The buildings and desiccated human remains are in a complete vacuum and might not be protected any longer even by the Van Allen Radiation Belt. (A curious thought, that, but I'll leave it to another to analyze.)

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    $\begingroup$ An absolute requirement for the Hollywood disaster trope - every disaster movie HAS to have a dog in it, escaping, in some scene or another. Cats, not so much. Has to be a dog. $\endgroup$ – Justin Thyme the Second Nov 11 '20 at 18:27
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    $\begingroup$ @JustinThymetheSecond Worse, this is an apocalypse story, like Mad Max, so there must be a surviving bad guy no matter what conditions exist. So, we have a surviving bad guy and his dog.... $\endgroup$ – JBH Nov 11 '20 at 18:33
  • $\begingroup$ So the earth swells, the core gets bigger and bigger (create an absolutely super-powerful electromagnetic force approachig that of a magnatar, but without the extreme density causing irresistable gravity, causing the molten iron to repel?) But how do you achieve escape velocity of the chunks? Wouldn't gravity still keep everything together, just a whole lot bigger? $\endgroup$ – Justin Thyme the Second Nov 11 '20 at 18:37
  • $\begingroup$ @JustinThymetheSecond Expand far enough and you don't need escape velocity. Or, said another way, the expansion is continuing, and the further out it gets, the more likely chunks separate from the surface. I think it's a flaw to limit ourselves to the idea that we're expelling the surface from the planet like a rocket. What we're doing is creating a suspension-of-disbelief reason to have chunks in somewhat close proximity (enough for an intrasystem craft to fly around). Besides, if you think about it, if the whole planet started expanding at 11 m/s, would an individual actually notice? $\endgroup$ – JBH Nov 11 '20 at 18:50
  • $\begingroup$ @JustinThymetheSecond I ask the question because we're conditioned to the feel of the orbital speed of the planet and its rotational speed. Maybe we'd notice when it first started, but (theoretically) an equal rate of expansion from the center outward would, at worst, quickly feel normal. It might take days or weeks for the first significant cracks to appear, which would obviously be along plate boundaries. A perfectly smooth expansion would leave the plates intact (but perfect expansion is obviously impossible). $\endgroup$ – JBH Nov 11 '20 at 18:55
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Sending parts of Earth drifting into space, as you require, will need something capable of imparting those parts escape velocity, around 11 km/s.

The only thing I can imagine producing such effect would be a massive impact which results in a spallation of the planet, kicking out large chunks of the planet surface on the opposite side with respect to the impact site.

spallation example

The planet would be turned into a molten ball of rock, but some of those ejected chunks would keep some remains of the original features.

The acceleration would be such that I doubt any building would remain untouched, but under the remains one could still scavenge for something useful.

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  • $\begingroup$ Or something like the Moon creation impact, which scraped off a thick layer of Earth crust. The levels of violence in either method are... scary. I expect nothing more solid than dust will make it. Likely red-hot dust, at that. $\endgroup$ – user79911 Nov 11 '20 at 11:38
  • $\begingroup$ This then makes me wonder: what would happen to various objects if they were sent flying at 11 km/s? Would objects stored deep underground be more resistant? Would objects enclosed inside, let's say, very thick metal containers be more resistant? How could an object somehow resist this velocity and still be useful for my scavengers? Should I make this into a new question? (I've searched if a similar question already exists but cannot find one) $\endgroup$ – EarthDebris Nov 11 '20 at 12:38
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    $\begingroup$ @EarthDebris - being in containers doesn't matter, because inertia applies to everything. If you store something fragile inside a heavy metal container, and the container is then near-instantaneously accelerated to 11 km/s, the fragile item experiences the side of the container hitting it at 11km/s. The container might survive, but the contents will not. $\endgroup$ – jdunlop Nov 12 '20 at 7:19
  • $\begingroup$ @EarthDebris Traveling at 11km/s doesn't itself have any effect on things, but accelerating up to 11km/s in a short timeframe has quite a large effect on things $\endgroup$ – Kevin Nov 13 '20 at 0:04
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Von Neumann probes

A Von Neumann probe is "a spacecraft capable of replicating itself." They necessarily need to extract material flom planets to make new copies.

If they are planet or dwarf planet sized and come to Earth, they might cut city or small country sized chunks of the planet's surface and take these to space far from Earth. With Kardashev level 2 or 3 technology, which is jargon for technological magic and handwavium, these chunks may reach space relatively intact.

The probe then takes the materials from the bottom of the chunk to make a new probe, discarding the surface side. Now you have two probes, and the process repeats. The probes will multiply increasingly faster, so the planet may be disassembled in short time.

In the Steven Universe cartoon, an alien species disassembled their own home planet for raw materials like that. It has been discussed online that the aliens in the show are also Von Neumann probes (but mostly human sized, unlike what I propose here), and indeed a lot pf the lost planetary mass was used for reproduction. Their planet is hollow and looks like the image below (black patches are voids) - and i remember it having chunks orbiting it in unnatural patterns:

The Gem Homeworld in Steven Universe

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'Respecting the current laws of physics'.

Ahh, yes, therein is the rub. Respecting the laws in reality, or respecting the laws in a fictional setting?

There is the 'possible', the 'plausible', and the 'believable' criteria level.

'Possible' is completely adherent to what an engineer, physicist, or scientist works within. As many posters have stated, there are lots of physical reality reasons why your scenario is not possible, among them gravity, the earth's molten core, and just the tremendous amount of energy necessary to accomplish the task. But, really, I don't think there is any disaster movie or fictional novel that strictly adheres to 'possible'.

'Plausible' agrees substantially to what the general public, with non-specific knowledge of engineering, physics, or science knows or understands about reality. Fortunately for science fiction, the general public does not know that much. Things like escape velocity, the molten core, and energy requirements are vaguely understood by most people, so disaster movies generally take liberties with the laws of physics and define them within the generally accepted public perception of them, not he mathematical models of pure science and engineering.

'Believable' generally acknowledges that the general public can be convinced of almost anything, if the writing is convincing enough. There are an abundance of disaster movies that fit this level.

TL:DR

Do you want the event to be valid within every law of physics, or within the realm of the public's generally believed and generally accepted laws of physics, but not completely confined by ALL of the laws being applied at once? That is, obey a few that are necessary to create the event, but ignore others that are inconsequential (inconvenient) to the plot?

Most people understand plate techtonics. They understand earthquakes, the movement of these plates, and the fact that they 'float' on a solid mantle. Okay, that layer is more 'plastic' than 'solid', but whatever. There is a 'wrap' that keeps the insides of the earth inside, that continents float on. People also understand that earthquakes are a result of a tremendous amount of energy. How much energy, they really are not concerned with, but just the notion that this energy can move an entire plate and cause mountains to form is overwhelming to them. They have also been inundated with factoids about asteroids, and the asteroid belt, being remnants of a planet that somehow self-destructed, without being re-constituted by the gravitational forces. Add to this all of the scare stories about mankind having enough nukes to blow the world apart ten times over? Everyone knows about unrestrained chain reactions. How about anti-matter? The general public perceives this to be able to produce phenomenal energies. Nuclear fusion plants and containment vessles gone bananas, releasing huge amounts of energy? And the creation of artificial black holes in large colliders? The fact that all of these things are created in lightning storms aside, the public is really gullible when it comes to armageddon disaster theories. What if they all happened at once, in some 'perfect storm'? One event leading to another?

So an event that is so powerful, it breaks up and knocks one or more of these techtonic plates off of the earth? It is not 'possible' escape velocity wise, when one does the actual calculations, but can it be made 'plausible' or 'believable'? An earthquake that is so powerful, it breaks these plates up into pieces, like a broken saucer, and flings them into space? Peeling them away from earth, leaving only the molten core, wrapped up in its 'mantle', behind? Notwithstanding the fact that most human structures and buildings depend on the existence of a gravitational force to 'hold them down' in compression, and could probably not retain their structural integrity in low gravity, especially during an earthquake, could the general public be convinced structures could survive on these plates?

Could a very convincing author make the general reading/viewing public believe that an all-out nuclear armageddon, where all nations fire off their nukes at the same time, even perhaps having progressed to anti-matter or controlled black hole weaponry, cause an earthquake of such magnitude that the earth shakes off its plates?

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    $\begingroup$ I think what I had in mind was closer to what you refer to as "possible". One thing I haven't mentioned in the question is that the fiction I'm trying to build will be intended for a specific group of people (not really the general public) who, while not being scientists, has the habit of being skeptical about things. Also, I feel that I will myself be more comfortable building the story if I can believe that it's possible. $\endgroup$ – EarthDebris Nov 11 '20 at 18:55
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    $\begingroup$ Then methinks you are left with something akin to an industrial accident that converts a substantial protion of the Earth's core into anti-matter, and the resulting energy release causing the core to vaporize, causing the techtonic plates to crack and be blown away. Vaporize the core, vent and disperse the pressurized gas cloud, no gravity. This spans the boundary between plausible and possible. But the converting into antimatter is between plausible and believable. No known way to do it, but no proven reason why it can not be done. $\endgroup$ – Justin Thyme the Second Nov 11 '20 at 19:20
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Impossible.

Let's take earth and just for the thought experiment split it in 8 with 3 slices and then magically pull them apart without destroying everything. Let's ignore the huge energy that is needed to get this done and the destruction that alone would bring.

These chunks are all 1/8th of the weight. Their desired center of mass is just R/2 from their own crust, but it currently is at 3/8th of the former earth Radius - considerably furth on the outside. The resulting forces are tremendous and first pull the pyramidal inner section of the chunks back up, which flattens the body. As a result of inertia, the center of the bent triangle former surface breaks open in the center and floods over with molten rock, the surface melting as it sinks to the center. Lacking the support of the (now missing) center, the corners of the former surface get pulled center wise harder, break down and melt. After a (geologically) short time the quarters have returned into their natural shape of mostly molten spheres - ruining their former surface - and start to cool again, rebuilding a surface.

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Known physics: Impossible.

Unknown physics:

First, you can rule out any possible explosion or accident. Even a tiny percent of the energy involved will destroy the surface, nothing indiscriminate could possibly be so selective.

Second, some answers have suggested somehow turning off gravity. That's going to fling off pieces from equatorial regions but they aren't going to snap cleanly. Your surface gets destroyed by earthquakes.

We need some way of cleanly removing chunks and that's only going to happen by deliberate action.

Enter Acme Planet Mining Company. They take useless worlds apart for raw materials. Shattered bits are hard to handle so they've learned to do it cleanly: The planet is surrounded by projectors that generate a very intense gravitational field. They're all turned on at once and the planet gets pulled apart into 3D pieces of pie. Once the pieces have been pulled far enough a second set of projectors slices up the pieces of pie.

The fields are powerful enough that the rock simply shears that the boundaries and the boundaries are straight so there's no rubbing. As the acceleration is gravitational the material being lifted isn't subjected to high forces, it comes up basically intact. (The projectors are highly focused and thus the normal inverse square doesn't meaningfully apply.)

The end result is squares (or perhaps hexagons) of crust of whatever size they choose to work with, the pieces of core cut off are molten and turn into blobs.

You imbeciles, that was the wrong planet you chopped up!

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  • $\begingroup$ Sounds more believable than my thought of a particularly large apple peeler. $\endgroup$ – Andrew Morton Nov 12 '20 at 12:29
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Impossible...

"Human technology has advanced, although it still respects the currently known laws of physics"

That's your problem right there. In a matter of minutes, you need to displace a mass of the order of magnitude of the Earth's (everything but the crust). Apart from the energy requirements (the gravitational binding energy of the Earth in a matter of minutes could only be supplied by a Kardashev level III civilization), this implies accelerations whole orders of magnitude beyond what most human artifacts could withstand.

Removing the core and leaving the surface in place would almost work, albeit requiring matter displacement (which violates the laws of physics), but that would still imply the cessation of the Earth's gravitational field, thereby liberating megatons of surface tensions (the Earth is not a sphere but a geoid, and after being hollowed out, any sizeable mountain would start rebounding) which, together with the atmosphere exploding outwards, would make short work of, again, most human artifacts.

...but could we cheat?

"Magic" can usually be made compatible with hard science fiction in one of two ways: nano- or pico-technology, or simulation. Move your "universe" inside a computer and literally everything becomes possible, often including self-contradictions in the laws of physics.

Nanoengineering the disappearance of the core is still impossible (plus the energy requirements explode, both literally and metaphorically).

What about simulation? For some reason, humanity decide to Ascend into a virtual world, and to do so, they use nanotechnology to map and possibly gradually replace the Earth's surface (nobody cares about the deep underground). When they have done so, they upload the Earth into the VirtuaEarth engine...and a bug hits.

Possibly even due to the nature of the process. Maybe they were using alien technology they did not fully understand; maybe they saw that the aliens had already made use of the same technology but had mapped their whole solid planet, which took millennia; the canny humans believed they could do this in mere months by skipping everything deeper than 15 kilometers, and did not realize that the virtualization engine would not keep the planet together under those conditions.

You are left with a world where an impossible gravity keeps people on the leftover chunks of surface, air is still there and still breathable, but the Earth's surface has become a flock of floating islands. The process can probably be fixed, if the engine can be accessed and properly reprogrammed.

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Highly advanced force-field bubbles would need to exist.

Let's imagine in the future it's possible to create an impenetrable bubble that would protect you from a nuclear explosion. These bubbles can be small enough to protect a house, or large enough to protect a city. They're spherical, so they contain air above and ground below. The force-fields can be sustained almost indefinitely by fusion power plants.

Presumably there is a way for a spaceship to pass through these bubbles, using similar force-field technology.

(We might also need some kind of artificial gravity to keep the air in the bubble from filling up with floating dirt. Luckily everyone already has gravity pads, because they like to turn down the gravity when they want to relax.)

Having established this technology, it no longer matters much what destroyed the earth. As soon as the earth's core got turned into anti-matter (or whatever) the seismic detectors were triggered, and the bubbles activated in time for the people in them to survive the immediate aftermath of the event.

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This suggestion isn't within the known laws of physics - I agree with others that that's probably impossible - but I quite like it.

If you were somehow able to make the force of gravity almost zero but very slightly negative in the region around the Earth, that would do it. It could be the result an experiment gone wrong, or maybe a doomsday weapon.

On the surface of Earth it would feel like there was no gravity. The atmosphere would expand out into space with nothing to hold it down, which would kill everyone pretty quickly, but buildings and chunks of landscape and so on would pretty much hold together, because there'd be no forces pulling them apart.

However, because of the slight negative gravity, each part of the Earth will be feeling a slight force pushing it away from the rest of the Earth, and on large enough scales this should be enough to rip it into big chunks and send them slowly accelerating away from each other. The effect can wear off once they've eventually reached each others' escape velocities, because then they won't just fall back down again.

It should be noted that this violates the conservation of energy fairly drastically, so if you're going for hard science it's not a good choice. But if you're willing to wave your hands about that sort of thing, it's a reasonable way to achieve the effect you're looking for.

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  • $\begingroup$ I've just noticed that sh4dow posted a very similar idea. However, I'll leave mine up because I think you really need the slightly negative gravity for this to work - I doubt the planet would really break up without that. $\endgroup$ – Nathaniel Nov 12 '20 at 14:59
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You could look into something similar to the Spindizzy from James Blish's Cities in Flight. In the novels, the spindizzy is used to separate entire cities from the gravitational field of Earth, establish artifical gravity, and allow them to travel faster-than-light, eventually leading to these cities acting as roaming contract workers for various outposts of human civilization.

If you want this to be a sudden event, you could postulate some mad scientist inventing this technology, and using it to accelerate large chunks of Earth's surface out into space. This would still leave most of the Earth behind (since less than 1% of Earth's surface is the Crust we live on), but from humanity's perspective, only the chunks that were broken off would be habitable.

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A localised effect "disabling" gravity

The "problem" preventing our planet from flying apart is the gigantic amount of energy required to move matter outside of its own gravity well. But what if some magical technology disabled gravity for a time?

The earth's crust would be ripped apart by the pressure of escaping magma from the earth's mantle and its pieces would be accalerated away on pillars of slowly cooling flame. Normally this acceleration would probably be relatively slow, and people might even survive if they don't drift of into space when trying to walk outside, asphyxiate in the very quickly escaping atmosphere, get hit by splatters of crustal magma or commit sudoku when realizing they might never reach their loved ones again. But whatever process disabled gravity might cancel the gravitational energy debt imperfectly, also resulting in a superheating of the earths core, instantly sublimating/evaporating the metal and blowing away the fragments on a shock front made from high-pressure metallic gas...

In-depth ideas

Energy Source Depending on the hardness of your scifi story, it might be necessary to postulate some source for the energy necessary to cancel the gravitational energy debt - after all, spontaneously violating conservation of energy would seem pretty implausible to most readers. Perhaps the researchers were utilizing some zero-point energy source to power an experimental flying car antigravity engine, but underestimated the actual energy output of the energy source, leading to a much less localized effect (spatially as well as temporally). Or perhaps the energy was pulled from the future, through some kind of time rift... In any case, the combination of some gigantic source of energy and antigravity experiments could very plausibly cause big parts of the earths crust to fly around relatively undamaged.

temporal energy source

If a spatial rift was the energy source used, there might be a mysterious anomaly flying through the wreckage, sucking up all energy from its vicinity to send back in time.

Is the effect permanent?

If (active (1)) gravity was permanently disabled for all matter that once was part of old earth, it would spread out rapidly. Distances would quickly grow huge, and after a few years a very loose asteroid belt would form (its looseness increasing at a speed depending on the initial speed of the "explosion" - there would be no internal gravitational interaction to stabilize the belt). If, on the other hand, gravity returned slowly, the outcome would depend on the speed of that return - ranging from stable asteroid belts (like the one we have) over clumps of wreckage barely bound together (and sometimes escaping), to an unstoppable cataclysm in the nearer future (few years to few millenia) where all pieces would crash back together (and obliterating all traces of humanity in the process).

Other side effects

The gravity-altering technology might have created other disturbances - some pieces having an earth-like gravity at their surface, others actively repelling nearby objects. This might (depending on your desired hardness) require additional handwaving to explain.

Conclusion

Whether a mindbending experiment gone wrong or a society playing with technology they didn't understand until reaching a catastrophic tipping point, the question of circumventing gravity is probably at the heart of every plausible solution to your problem, since any source of energy capable of quickly removing a large piece of our planet out of an intact gravity well would vaporize it in the process. More "mundane" sources of anomalous gravity (like the Roche limit idea mentioned by James McLellan, or perhaps an alcubiere warp drive experiment) might work equally well and might be more plausible, but would probably destroy most of the surface structure of our crust as well. If gravity was turned of "peacefully", very large chunks of crust could stay intact, and there would only be minimal to medium (depending on acceleration speed and "tectonic" collision rate) damage to buildings - even precarious skyscrapers could very well survive intact.

Notes

(1) by active gravity I mean the effect of matter distorting surrounding spacetime. "passive" gravity (as in still being attracted by the sun) would still work, as it is an intrinsic effect of the geometry of spacetime. But the spacetime-distorting property of matter would be much easier to counteract, at least in the (my) current understanding of the nature of gravity. Just imagine exotic (negative) dark matter swirling around, canceling the (active) mass of our normal matter... (and there are probably many more good explanations of decent scifi hardness).

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    $\begingroup$ How exactly does one “commit sudoku”? $\endgroup$ – Jim Garrison Nov 11 '20 at 22:39
  • $\begingroup$ @JimGarrison - generally, one makes sure that all the rows, columns, and subdivisions contain exactly one instance of each number. $\endgroup$ – jdunlop Nov 12 '20 at 7:20
  • $\begingroup$ @jdunlop I believe the phrase is “commit seppuku” :-) $\endgroup$ – Jim Garrison Nov 12 '20 at 17:13
  • $\begingroup$ @JimGarrison - oh, I'm familiar with seppuku, but if someone is committing sudoku to avoid dishonour, they presumably have to be doing it with a calligraphy brush on rice paper. $\endgroup$ – jdunlop Nov 12 '20 at 19:42
  • $\begingroup$ @JimGarrison The deliberate confusion of "sudoku" and "seppuku" is an internet meme. You should be able to find references to it on sites like KnowYourMeme. $\endgroup$ – nick012000 Nov 13 '20 at 0:12
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I think other contributors have amply demonstrated that the desired effect is not possible with any technology (or even any natural process) within our current understanding of possibility.

If you consider a speculative technology such as teleportation to be one that "respects the currently known laws of physics", however, here is a possible way to do it:

At some future date humans develop teleportation technology capable of moving large masses over interplanetary distances. Like the Star Trek teleporters, this technology requires a teleportation station on only one end of the journey, but unlike the Star Trek teleporters it is capable of teleporting something the size of the entire USS Enterprise over the distance from Earth to Mars.

This technology is implemented in numerous places around the Earth as a method of interplanetary travel that is rapid and relatively safe (compared to sitting in a spaceship bathed in radiation for several months).

In order to safely teleport an object over such a large distance, the station must be extremely stable, and so it uses teleportation technology to "stabilize" the crust of the Earth within 20 or 30 kilometers radius of the station (in three dimensions), essentially by continually teleporting that entire mass through tiny distances (measured in nanometers) in order to compensate for any disturbance.

Unfortunately there is a bug in the software that controls the "stabilization". One day an earthquake very near one of the teleportation stations exceeds the normal bounds of operation and triggers this bug. Instead of teleporting a few nanometers, the teleportation station (under the control of the software) teleports itself and a nearly-hemispherical chunk of the Earth's surface 20 or 30 kilometers in radius to somewhere around the distance of the Moon, and leaves this chunk with enough velocity to remain in orbit far above the Earth.

The resulting shock waves caused by the removal of this chunk (and the collapse of the hole left behind) trigger the same software bug in stations around the globe, and they also teleport chunks of similar sizes to similar orbits, turning the tectonic plates of every continent into something resembling Swiss cheese.

The effect on the remaining surface of the Earth is cataclysmic, destroying every structure and human artifact and wiping out all life. The effect on the teleported chunks is also disastrous -- whatever part of the atmosphere was teleported is quickly lost -- but each chunk has such weak gravity that there is no deformation or fracturing of that piece of crust. Buildings are severely damaged by explosive decompression but many artifacts remain.


This is still quite fantastic and I'm not sure even I would be able to comfortably suspend disbelief this far, but I think you could do a lot worse.

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Humans aren't currently at any sort of technological state where we could consider disrupting the structural integrity of the Earth. If you want the disaster to be man made, you are already so far beyond what we currently have access to or know that you can basically say whatever you like. It's sufficiently advanced technology.

I like trying to compress Jupiter into a red dwarf using mass from an artificial white hole so that we can wrap it in 9 / 10ths of a Dyson sphere. Use magnets and the open part of the dyson sphere to turn it into a generation ship. Lots of things that can go wrong there.

It seems that you could tune a black hole or neutron star's speed and mass so that forces the earth into a really good spin (kind of a reverse gravity assist), so that it tears itself apart. Kind of like an Olympic discus thrower trying to set a distance record with an uncooked pizza. If an npc proposes it as a hypothesis, and another lampshades the improbability of such an event, you're basically there. From there, you can sidestep the further and much greater improbability of human artifacts surviving. Your characters already know it's improbable. If your players need a better explanation of the event, they can attempt to figure it out themselves.

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