Friday, April 8, 2011

Astrophysicists unveil new planet-hunting secret weapon: "fluffy interplanetary dust bunnies"? 10.01.10

Scientists Christopher Stark and Marc Kuchner have unraveled a mystery that will likely make planet-hunting much simpler. Using the Discover super computer at the Goddard Space Flight Center, the two astrophysicists have created something they are calling a “collisional grooming algorithm,” a set of mathematical parameters that allows them to track, calculate, predict, and simulate the movement of a billion, billion, billion dust particles in space via computer calculations.

Why would you ever care about tracking dust, you ask? The two scientists were trying to visualize the way our solar systems must look from the outside, and hit upon the idea that “dust” particles may create a unique image of our planets swirling around our sun from millions of light years away. Our solar system, and the rest of the universe, is positively bursting with all manner of “dust” particles, pieces of crusty or frozen vapor and mineral debris. By positioning 75,000 of these “dust” particles into the digital simulator (with each particle representing millions of other particles) and causing them to behave as they would with planets swirling around within that dust cloud—planets  that have their own considerable gravitational fields—the two scientists have begun revealing how dust is affected by this type of movement. It turns out their brilliant idea is proving true. The rotation of the planets, along with their gravitational fields that push and pull the dust grains around through space, creates an image of the original cloud of dust, but one that is slowly swirling, and also now contains “rings, gaps, and clumps.”

Just like deer in the forest, these planets are passing through and picking up small amounts of debris and leaving tracks as they pass through on their way. This new technology will now make it much simpler to search for alien planets, as scientists can now look for the much larger rings of dust—the evidence of the existence of a planet—instead of searching for the individual planets that may otherwise be too small or blocked from view.

Credit: Geeked on Goddard.

Image credit: Geeked on Goddard.

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