Validating Planets with Video Games

Jeff Coughlin bio photo By Jeff Coughlin

There’s a new game sweeping the interwebs that’s like flappy bird for nerds. In Super Planet Crash you build solar systems with the goal that they must remain dynamically stable for at least 500 years – no planet collisions and no planets ejected from the system. You get more points for using more massive bodies. There’s one point for an Earth-mass planet, five for a super-Earth, 300 for a gas giant like Jupiter, and so on up to the the largest object, a dwarf star worth a whopping 30,000 points. You get more points for adding heavier objects because it becomes increasingly harder to build a stable system with them. More mass means more gravity, stronger interactions, and dramatically increasing odds of a planetary disaster within 500 years.

Super Planet Crash is in a way the same validation technique that was recently used to confirm over 715 Kepler planet candidates as real, bona fide, confirmed extrasolar planets. Each of these planets are in multi-planet systems, where we have at least two planetary signals, but often have as many as five or six. But are they real planets or more massive things like brown dwarfs or stars? We know these systems are dynamically stable because they exist; if they weren’t stable they would’ve had planet smashes of their own eons ago, and we wouldn’t have observed them. We can run simulations and do the statistical analysis that shows that if the objects in those systems had masses that were larger than that typical for planets of their size, the system would not be stable, just like in Super Planet Crash. Thus, we are able to confirm these candidate signals as real planets with planet-like masses, dramatically increasing the number of confirmed planets discovered to-date. Check out the NASA press release video below, and a warning if you play Super Planet Crash, be prepared to waste away a few hours of your day…for uh…science…