JUN 29, 2015 7:04 AM PDT

Orbiting Debris is Mapped With a Supercomputer

In today's technology there's a lot of talk about "the cloud" and how all of our documents and data can be stored "virtually" in a cloud. But in space, clouds are real. Just as Pig Pen from the Peanuts walked around with a cloud of dirt and dust following him, many planets have clouds of gas, stardust and debris surrounding them. But until now, there was no way to really analyze these debris fields without expensive space probes, telescopes and multi-year missions.
A composite image of Beta Pictoris is shown in infrared red light.
NASA has now harnessed the power of the virtual world and with the use of a super computer has created a computer model that recreates the debris field of Beta Pictoris. Beta Pictoris has always been of interest to astronomers. It's part of the constellation Pictor and relatively young in space terms, its age estimated to be between 8-20 million years old. It's huge and pretty bright as well, being 1.75 times as massive as our sun and 8.7 times as luminous. The computer model has shown researchers that the motion of the planet is actually causing waves to ripple throughout the surrounding debris disk. This motion is causing bodies within the debris to smash into each other, and it's these collisions that could explain events that previous studies have been unable to account for.

Erika Nesvold, a co-developer of the simulation model and an astrophysicist at the University of Maryland in Baltimore County said in a NASA press release, "We essentially created a virtual Beta Pictoris in the computer and watched it evolve over millions of years. This is the first full 3-D model of a debris disk where we can watch the development of asymmetric features formed by planets, like warps and eccentric rings, and also track collisions among the particles at the same time."

The view of the debris disk that surrounds Beta Pictoris is seen from Earth right along its edge. Since it is fairly close to our solar system at a mere 63 million light years away, it is often studied, but the computer model has provided the best information so far. The disk that orbits the planet is composed of rock and ice grains, some large as a small home, and some as small as dust particles. Astronomers have compared it to the Kuiper Belt that lies at the edge of our solar system, but Beta Pectoris is much younger.

In addition to the rock and ice, there is also a smaller version of Beta Pictoris orbiting along with the debris. Identified in 2009, it's named simply Beta Pictoris b. It's about 9 times the size of Jupiter and orbits its sun at the same distance that Saturn orbits our sun.

Before discovering the planet's motion and the resulting waves and ripples, which one research likened to someone doing a "cannon ball into a swimming pool" scientists had been baffled by clumps of gas, light patterns and warps that previous studies had observed but not explained.

The computer model that detailed the collisions in the debris field that are likely responsible for these phenomena is called the Superparticle-Method Algorithm for Collisions in Kuiper Belts, or, aptly abbreviated, SMACK. Running the model on the Discover supercomputer owned by NASA, the the simulation only took 11 days to produce and find the answers to so many solar system mysteries.

The team's research was presented at an astronomy conference last week and a research paper detailing the findings has been submitted to the Astrophysical Journal for publication. Check out the video below for more information
About the Author
  • I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
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