Presentation of VPLanet: a virtual planet simulator for modeling worlds that are distant in time

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The image is the illustration of several probably habitable worlds

The astrobiologist of the University of Washington Rory Barnes and co-authors created VPLanet, a software package that simulates multiple aspects of planetary evolution over billions of years, with an eye to research and the study of worlds potentially habitable .ESA / Hubble, NASA

Astrobiologist of the University of Washington Rory Barnes has created software that simulates multiple aspects of planetary evolution over billions of years, with an eye to research and the study of potentially habitable worlds.

Barnes, a UW assistant professor of astrobiology, astronomy and data science, released the first version of VPLanet, his virtual planet simulator, in August. He and his co-authors described it in a paper accepted for publication in the Proceedings of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific.

"It connects the different physical processes in a coherent way," he said, "so that the effects or phenomena that occur in some parts of a planetary system are tracked throughout the system. And in the end the hope is, of course, to determine if a planet is able to sustain life or not. "

The VPLanet mission is threefold, write Barnes and the co-authors. The software can:

  • simulate newly discovered exoplanets to assess their potential to possess surface liquid water, which is the key to life on Earth and indicates that the world is a viable goal in the pursuit of life beyond the Earth
  • to model different planetary and stellar systems regardless of their habitability, to know their properties and their history, and
  • enable transparent and open science that contributes to the search for life in the universe

The first version includes modules for the internal and magnetic evolution of terrestrial planets, climate, atmospheric escape, tidal forces, orbital evolution, rotation effects, stellar evolution, planets in orbit around binary stars and gravitational perturbations from stars of passage.

It is designed for easy growth. Researchers can write new physical modules "and almost link them and reproduce them directly," Barnes said. VPLanet can also be used to integrate more sophisticated tools such as machine learning algorithms.

An important part of the process, he said, is the validation or control of physical models with respect to previous actual observations or past results, to confirm that they work properly with system expansion.

"So basically we connect the modules in a central area in the code that can shape all the members of a planetary system throughout its history," said Barnes.

And although the search for potentially habitable planets is of central importance, VPLanet can be used for more general investigations of planetary systems.

"Today we look at planets, but they are billions of years old," he said. This is a tool that allows us to ask ourselves: & # 39; How do the various properties of a planetary system evolve over time? & # 39; "

The history of the project dates back almost a decade to a Seattle astronomers meeting called "Revisiting the Habitable Zone" convened by Victoria Meadows, principal investigator of the UW-based Virtual planetary laboratory, with Barnes. The habitable zone is the wave of space around a star that allows the orbit of the rocky planets to be sufficiently tempered to have liquid water on the surface, giving a chance to life.

They acknowledged at the time, Barnes said, that knowing if a planet is in the habitable zone of its star simply isn't enough information: "So from this meeting we identified a whole series of physical processes that can affect the capacity of a planet to support and retain water. "

Barnes discussed the VPLanet and presented a tutorial on its use at the recent AbSciCon19 world astrobiology conference, held in Seattle.

The research was conducted through the Virtual Planetary Laboratory and the source code is available on line.

The other faculty co-authors of Barnes are professors of astronomy Tom Quinn; Cecilia Bitz, professor of atmospheric sciences; and researcher Pramod Gupta. Other co-authors of UW are doctoral students David Fleming, Rodolfo Garcia, is Hayden Smotherman; and university researchers Caitlyn Wilhelm, Benjamin Guyer and Diego McDonald.

Other co-authors are Peter Driscoll of the Carnegie Institution for Science; Rodrigo Luger of the Flatiron Institute, Patrick Barth of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany, Russell Deitrick of the University of Bern, Shawn Domagal-Goldman of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center e John Armstrong of Weber State University.

The research was funded by a grant from the Virtual Planetary Laboratory team of the NASA Astrobiology Program, as part of the Nexus for Exoplanet System Science research coordination network, or NExSS.

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