Interplanetary Space Dust Fingerprints
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center has been running supercomputer simulations of the impact of extrasolar planets on the dust that surrounds stars with orbiting bodies. The results seem to show that we could use patterns in that dust to detect planets smaller than what even advanced telescopes could detect. They mention the possibility of detecting planets as small as Mars (which is about 15% of Earth’s volume and 11% of the mass)!
Working with Marc Kuchner at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., Stark modeled how 25,000 dust particles responded to the presence of a single planet — ranging from the mass of Mars to five times Earth’s — orbiting a sunlike star. Using NASA’s Thunderhead supercomputer at Goddard, the scientists ran 120 different simulations that varied the size of the dust particles and the planet’s mass and orbital distance.
“Our models use ten times as many particles as previous simulations. This allows us to study the contrast and shapes of ring structures,” Kuchner adds. From this data, the researchers mapped the density, brightness, and heat signature resulting from each set of parameters.
You can actually check out the 120 simulation models by yourself in the Exozodi Simulation Catalog.
What This Means for the Future?
It’s less than certain that if humans colonize space, they’ll do it in their current biological form, so we won’t necessarily need Earth-like planets that can be terraformed. But it’s still a good idea to look, if only to have a more accurate map of the universe.
Last April I wrote about the discovery of the First Potentially Habitable Planet Outside the Solar System, but it had a radius 50% bigger than Earth and gravity about twice as strong. Now the race is on to discover smaller and more Earth-like exoplanets.
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