In 1889, in honour of his 60th birthday King Oscar II of Sweden offered a rich prize to any scientist who could solve an ancient puzzle known as the Three Body Problem. If you know the mass, location, and velocity of three hypothetical objects, such as planets or moons, how can you predict the future path of their orbits?
Now Chinese scientists have used one of the world’s fastest supercomputers to discover nearly 700 new unique and specific solutions to the Three Body Problem, according to their new paper in the journal Science China Physics Mechanics & Astronomy.
Two centuries earlier, in 1687, Isaac Newton had discovered how gravity works, and explained the mathematics of how it applies to two planets, varying according to the distance between them.
The Three Body Problem is now recognized as a classic example of a chaotic system.
In some cases, when one of the three bodies has a very small mass, the orbits of the other two can create what are known as Lagrangian Points, locations where the gravity of the two larger objects is in perfect balance, and the smaller third object is held in a stable location.
The Chinese researchers credit their discoveries to advancements in computer science and their novel technique called clean numerical simulation, which is a strategy for modelling chaotic systems, in which solutions are reached indirectly by continuous refinement, rather than directly by brute calculation.