Notice: This is an archived and unmaintained page. For current information, please browse

2013 Annual Science Report

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Reporting  |  SEP 2012 – AUG 2013

SMACK: A New Algorithm for Modeling Collisions and Dynamics of Planetesimals in Debris Disks

Project Summary

Finding habitable planets and understanding the delivery of volatiles to their surfaces requires understanding the disks of rocky and icy debris that these planets orbit within. But modeling the physics of these disks is complicated because of the challenge of tracking collisions among trillions of trillions of colliding bodies. We developed a new technique and a new code for modeling the collisions and dynamics of debris disks, called “SMACK” which will help us interpret images of planetary systems to better understand how planetesimals transport material within young planetary systems.

4 Institutions
3 Teams
4 Publications
0 Field Sites
Field Sites

Project Progress

We developed a new technique and a new code (called “SMACK”) for modeling the collisions and dynamics of debris disks. SMACK will help us interpret images of planetary systems and understand how planetesimals transport material around young planetary systems. SMACK (Superparticle Model/Algorithm for Collisions in Kuiper belts) combines an N-body integrator with a novel superparticle-based algorithm that tracks several orders of magnitude in planetesimal size and runs fast enough to model the entire lifetime of a typical observed debris disk in a feasible number of CPU cycles. With SMACK, we can derive improved estimates of the masses and orbital parameters of exoplanets from high spatial resolution images of debris disks, and better understand the history of the solar system, e.g. by calculating the effects of collisions on predictions of late heavy bombardment events in the context of the Nice dynamical model.

Before we could publish a new kind of disk model, we had to show that it was stable and accurate. So we spent the bulk of the year subjecting SMACK to a series of numerical tests. We showed that SMACK conserves angular momentum at an acceptable level. We showed that it is stable to numerical viscosity and numerical heating over 10 Myr time scales. We also compared SMACK models to one-dimensional analytical models of disk evolution, and showed that SMACK can reproduce them.

Then, we used SMACK to model the evolution of a debris ring containing a planet on an eccentric orbit. We found that differential precession creates a transient spiral structure as the ring evolves, but that collisions subsequently break up the spiral, leaving a narrower eccentric ring.

Model of a debris disk made using SMACK (Nesvold and Kuchner 2013). A planet on an eccentric orbit (white ellipse) gravitationally perturbs a disk of planetesimals, which then collide with one another, producing dust. This kind of model will help us interpret images of debris disks and compare them with evolutionary processes in our own solar system.

We saw that the ring acquires a forced eccentricity from the planet, but that (in 10 Myr) it never quite stops precessing – in contrast with common assumptions made by previous modelers. A paper describing the SMACK code, our numerical tests, and these initial models was prepared and accepted for publication in the Astrophysical Journal during this reporting period (Nesvold, Kuchner, Rein, & Pan 2013).

    Marc Kuchner
    Project Investigator

    Erika Nesvold

    Margaret Pan

    Hanno Rein

    Objective 1.1
    Formation and evolution of habitable planets.

    Objective 1.2
    Indirect and direct astronomical observations of extrasolar habitable planets.

    Objective 3.1
    Sources of prebiotic materials and catalysts