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Hunting Supernovas with Supercomputers

Simulation of the expanding debris from a supernova explosion (shown in red) running over and shredding a nearby star (shown in blue).

Simulation of the expanding debris from a supernova explosion (shown in red) running over and shredding a nearby star (shown in blue).

Caltech researchers are using NERSC supercomputers to search for newly born supernovas. The details of their findings appear May 20 in an advance online issue of Nature.

Type Ia supernovae are destructive explosions of carbon-oxygen white dwarfs. Although they are used empirically to measure cosmological distances, the nature of their progenitors remains mysterious. One of the leading progenitor models, called the single degenerate channel, hypothesizes that a white dwarf accretes matter from a companion star and the resulting increase in its central pressure and temperature ignites thermonuclear explosion. Here we report observations with the Swift Space Telescope of strong but declining ultraviolet emission from a type Ia supernova within four days of its explosion. This emission is consistent with theoretical expectations of collision between material ejected by the supernova and a companion star, and therefore provides evidence that some type Ia supernovae arise from the single degenerate channel.

While Type Ia supernovae have been known for their consistency, new observations suggest that their origins may not be uniform at all. Using supercomputer simulations as a pointer, astronomers are able to observer flashes from the supernova striking a nearby star. This observation allowed them to locate where the supernova was born.

We often talk about how computational science is the third pillar of the scientific method, next to theory and experimentation, this finding really brings that point home. In this case, we can see how computational models and tools are driving discovery and transforming our knowledge about the cosmos,” says Peter Nugent, Berkeley Lab scientist and member of the iPTF collaboration.

Source: Caltech

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