Posted August 6, 2011
by Lensyl Urbano
National Geographic has a cute little game that lets you create a two-dimensional solar system, with a sun and some planets, and then simulates the gravitational forces that make them orbit and collide with each other. The pictures are pretty, but I prefer the VPython model of the solar system forming from the nebula.
The models starts off with a cloud of interstellar bodies which are drawn together by gravitational attraction. Every time they collide they merge creating bigger and bigger bodies: the largest of which becomes the sun near the center of the simulation, while the smaller bodies orbit like the planets.
This model also comes out of Sherwood and Chabay’s Physics text, but I’ve adapted it to make it a little more interactives. You can tag along for a ride with one of the orbiting planets, which, since this is 3d, makes for an excellent perspective (see the video). You can also switch the trails on and off so you can see the paths of the planetary bodies, note their orbits and see the deviations from their ideal ellipses that result from the gravitational pull of the other planets.
I’ve found this model to be a great way to introduce topics like the formation of the solar system, gravity, and even climate history (the ice ages over the last 2 million years were largely impelled by changes in the ellipticity of the Earth’s orbit).
National Geographic’s Solar System Builder is here.