Using supercomputers to understand the super stars of the cosmos

Apr 25, 2011 By Miles O'Brien and Marsha Walton
Scientists in California have discovered a new way that stars explode. The discovery hinges on an unusual explosion in the galaxy NGC 1821, roughly 160 million light years away, according to astronomer Dovi Poznanski of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Light from the exploding star reached Earth in 2002 and was recorded by a robotic telescope at Lick Observatory, near San Jose, Calif. Credit: Tony Piro (2005)

( -- Is it a high-speed graphic animation of a yellow-golden cauliflower erupting in fast motion? No. Maybe it's some kind of time-lapse, computer-generated X-ray of a brain as it grows over years. No.

It's one of many images Princeton University astrophysicist Adam Burrows has conjured up, using supercomputers to simulate an explosion deep within a star called a supernova. It's not a run-of-the-mill that fuels a healthy star. Instead, it's the kind of explosion that seals a star's fate.

"The rest of the star, its surface, and most of its mass are completely oblivious to its impending fate, but the explosion, which will take just a few seconds, will propagate through the star on periods of hours to a day," explains Burrows.

This video is not supported by your browser at this time.

With help from the National Science Foundation (NSF), Burrows uses supercomputers to create spectacular 3-D images of that allow him to peer inside these super just before they explode.

"One of the things we discovered is that it doesn't explode as a ring expanding out. It explodes in tendrils and fingers, very turbulently," continues Burrows. "The material that's ejected in the supernovae will then start to collapse. Some of that gas will form the next generation of stars and you'll go through the same cycle again."

Supernovae are also the source of many of the heavy elements of nature. In fact, without them, there would be no "us!"

"Some of the heavy elements manufactured in supernovae include the calcium that's in your bones, the fluoride in your toothpaste, and the iron in your blood," says Burrows.

It takes a lot of star power to make those elements. "When supernovae explode, they release the equivalent of 10 to the 28th [or ten octillion] megatons of TNT in energy. One megaton alone is the explosive equivalent of one of the largest hydrogen bombs," Burrows points out.

The of supernovae are created using complex mathematical models and take months to process. "Being able to understand the explosions with these simulations is a milestone in theoretical astrophysics," notes Burrows.

Only stars that have about eight times the mass of our sun will die this type of violent death. Burrows says that our sun is a pretty boring star compared to what else is out there.

Explore further: A new approach in the search for extraterrestrial intelligence: targeting alien polluters

Related Stories

Sounds of Star Death Near Middle C

Jan 24, 2006

Scientists have made the astonishing discovery that sound might drive supernovae explosions. Their computer simulations say that dying stars pulse at audible frequencies -- for instance, at about the F-note ...

The origin of supernovae confirmed

Mar 19, 2009

Where do supernovae come from? Astronomers have long believed they were exploding stars, but by analysing a series of images, researchers from the Dark Cosmology Centre at the Niels Bohr Institute, University of Copenhagen ...

Where do supernovae come from?

Sep 17, 2010

( -- Supernovae, the explosive deaths of massive stars, are among the most momentous events in the cosmos because they disburse into space all of the chemical elements that were produced inside ...

Recommended for you

Satellite galaxies put astronomers in a spin

59 minutes ago

An international team of researchers, led by astronomers at the Observatoire Astronomique de Strasbourg (CNRS/Université de Strasbourg), has studied 380 galaxies and shown that their small satellite galaxies almost always ...

Video: The diversity of habitable zones and the planets

1 hour ago

The field of exoplanets has rapidly expanded from the exclusivity of exoplanet detection to include exoplanet characterization. A key step towards this characterization is the determination of which planets occupy the Habitable ...

Ultra-deep astrophoto of the Antenna Galaxies

1 hour ago

You might think the image above of the famous Antenna Galaxies was taken by a large ground-based or even a space telescope. Think again. Amateur astronomer Rolf Wahl Olsen from New Zealand compiled a total ...

The most precise measurement of an alien world's size

2 hours ago

Thanks to NASA's Kepler and Spitzer Space Telescopes, scientists have made the most precise measurement ever of the radius of a planet outside our solar system. The size of the exoplanet, dubbed Kepler-93b, ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (3) Apr 26, 2011
May I suggest that NSF use supercomputers to create "spectacular 3-D images" of the Cradle of the Nuclides:

Those were used to discover the energy source that causes supernova explosions [1-3].

1. "Attraction and repulsion of nucleons: Sources of stellar energy", Journal of Fusion Energy 19, 93-98 (2001).

2. "Neutron repulsion confirmed as energy source",
Journal of Fusion Energy 20, 197-201 (2003).

3. "Neutron Repulsion", The APEIRON Journal, in press, 19 pages (2011);

With kind regards,
Oliver K. Manuel