CTC Visualizations Help Explain the Mysteries of Deep Space

Stephanie Specchio
Ithaca, NY

With the help of data from researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and computer graphics animation from Wayne Lytle, of the visualization department at the Cornell Theory Center (CTC), viewers of PBS in April will be able to watch planets interact with each other and the star they orbit.
The first of a three-part PBS series, "Mysteries of Deep Space," will be broadcast on Monday, April 14, with the second and third parts airing on the two following Mondays.
The two researchers are Frederic A. Rasio, an assistant professor in the department of physics at MIT, and Eric B. Ford, an MIT sophomore and physics major. Following the discovery of about a dozen planets in the last year, Rasio and Ford ran simulations on CTC's IBM RS/6000 Scalable POWERparallel Systems (SP) to look at solar system formation.
"The massively parallel SP system is ideally suited to this investigation because it allows us to perform many thousands of orbital integrations in a relatively short time," Rasio says. "A large number of integrations is necessary if we want to be able to estimate the relative probabilities of forming different kinds of planetary systems."
What the researchers found was the likelihood that the existence of life-sustaining planets, such as Earth, might be rarer than was previously thought. Their work will be featured in the third episode of the series.
"Discoveries such as these are causing revisions in the way we look at planets," according to PBS producer, Thomas Lucas. "Rasio and Ford's findings suggest that solar systems like ours might be unique. Their simulation offers an explanation of why many of the recently discovered planets orbit so close to their stars or why they have such eccentric orbits. And Wayne has very artfully illustrated this for our series."
What seems to happen is that two planets orbit their common star, and eventually their orbits come close enough together that the planets' gravitational forces affect each other. This interaction can lead to an instability, and ultimately, to the ejection of one planet out to a large distance while the other planet plunges in much closer to the star. Planetary systems that could support intelligent life probably require planets that can remain for billions of years on stable, circular orbits. The results of Rasio and Ford suggest that such stable systems might be very rare.

About the Cornell Theory Center
The Cornell Theory Center is supported by the National Science Foundation, New York State, the National Center for Research Resources at the National Institutes of Health, IBM, and other members of CTC's Corporate Partnership Program.

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