For the first time researchers have simulated images of sections of our Solar System as they may have appeared some 700 million years ago. Supercomputer modeling of tiny dust particles far out in space may also pave the way to the discovery of new planets. "We're hoping our models will help us spot Neptune-sized worlds around other stars," Said Marc Kuchner, an astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. who led the study.
The dust occurs in the Kuiper Belt, an incredibly cold section of our solar system just beyond Neptune and the home to Pluto.
"Our new simulations also allow us to see how dust from the Kuiper Belt might have looked when the solar system was much younger," said Christopher Stark, who worked with Kuchner at NASA Goddard. "In effect, we can go back in time and see how the distant view of the solar system may have changed."
Using simulations through NASA's Discover supercomputing systems, the researchers were able to model 75,000 dust particles in the Kuiper Belt and watch as they interacted with each other, the outer planets, sunlight and the solar wind.
"One thing we've learned is that, even in the present-day solar system, collisions play an important role in the Kuiper Belt's structure," Stark explained. It is likely that the Kuiper Belt contained many more larger particles in the past which have since collided into each other and been destroyed. During these simulations, the grains were put into one of three types of orbits believed to exist in the Kuiper Belt and the results provided data to create synthetic images of the solar system with an infrared view.
Through different simulations that included progressively greater collision rates, the team successfully created images with dust particles being 10, 100 and 10,000 times more intense than the first simulation. These dust representations are estimated to map the Kuiper Belt when it was 700 million, 100 million and 15 million years old. Peering back in time the now dust filled belt was once a dense, bright ring as commonly seen around Fomalhaut and other stars.
"The amazing thing is that we've already seen these narrow rings around other stars," Stark said. This may mean that the researchers have also discovered an avenue to peek into the future.
"One of our next steps will be to simulate the debris disks around Fomalhaut and other stars to see what the dust distribution tells us about the presence of planets," added Stark.
The same technology will also be used to create pictures of areas closer to the sun and larger asteroid belts.