Credit: NASA/E. Nesvold and M. Kuchner

My general research interest is detecting and characterizing exoplanets. For my thesis project, I developed a model of the interaction between debris disks and their embedded planets. The gravitational perturbations of planets can produce morphological features in debris disks that we can observe with instruments like Hubble and ALMA. Using images of resolved debris disks, my model can predict the presence of otherwise undetected planets in those disks, and even characterize the planets’ orbital parameters.

The model I use combines a new collisional algorithm with the open-source N-body integrator REBOUND. The collisional algorithm, called the Superparticle Model/Algorithm for Collisions in Kuiper belts (SMACK), simulates the fragment production and velocity damping due to collisions between planetesimals. SMACK, when used as a module in REBOUND, can simultaneously model, in 3D, the collisional and dynamical evolution of planetesimals in a debris disk.

I’ve discovered that collisions have a significant effect on the structures that we observe in disks. As an example, I modeled the fascinating debris disk around the star β Pictoris and found that my SMACK model could explain many of the features that we see. You can find more great animations and videos for this work at the NASA Science Visualization Studio website.