We have just begun to try and image distant solar systems around other stars, and hopefully our techniques and technology will improve in the near future so that we can one day find — and take pictures of — planets as small as Earth. But what if another civilization from a distant star was looking at us? What would they see? A new supercomputer simulation tracking the interactions of thousands of dust grains show what our solar system might look like to alien astronomers searching for planets. It also provides a look back to how our planetary system may have changed and matured over time.
Christopher Stark and Marc Kuchner from Goddard Spaceflight Center have been working on this model for a couple of years. In 2008, they explained how looking at dust in other solar systems could help point out exoplanets.
Now, they have turned that model back on our own solar system and have written a new paper on the collisional models of the Kuiper Belt dust, showing how that part of our solar system is an older, leaner version of the debris disks have been seen around stars like Vega and Fomalhaut.
“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 helped create the simulation. “In effect, we can go back in time and see how the distant view of the solar system may have changed.”
In the video above, you can see how a dusty disk could collapse into a dense, bright ring that bears more than a passing resemblance to rings seen around other stars, especially Fomalhaut.
“The amazing thing is that we’ve already seen these narrow rings around other stars,” Stark said. “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.”
If aliens were using similar techniques to look at us, Kuchner said astronomers from faraway worlds could easily determine the presence of Neptune — its gravity carves a little gap in the dust our solar sytem. “We’re hoping our models will help us spot Neptune-sized worlds around other stars,” he said.