Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Computers `Detonate' Massive Stars in Quest to Copy Supernovas

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Computers `Detonate' Massive Stars in Quest to Copy Supernovas

Article excerpt

LIKE auto mechanics trying to jump-start an engine, astrophysicists have huddled around computer terminals, trying to mimic the cataclysmic end of massive stars, with little success ... until now.

This week, two teams of researchers announced that they have simulated such events with remarkable regularity, yielding fresh insights into the most violent displays in nature since the Big Bang. "This is a real breakthrough," says Alex Filippenko, an astronomer at the University of California at Berkeley, of the high-tech "detonations" being modeled on supercomputers. "People have been trying to blow up stars for decades" in an attempt to test notions of how supernovas explode.

The quest to understand these events is driven by the vital role supernovas play in the universe. The nuclear reactions that take place during a supernova supply the chemical elements heavier than helium - such as oxygen, iron, and carbon. They also stimulate star formation as their shock waves move through interstellar gas. They can even change the dynamics of a galaxy's evolution, says Willy Benz, an astronomy professor at the University of Arizona and a member of one of the two research teams. Yet the rarity of these events occurring close enough for regular study - an average of one supernova every 30 to 100 years in the Milky Way - leaves scientists with only supercomputers to test theories.

That changed in 1987, when a supernova appeared in the Large Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy to the Milky Way. The supernova, only about 187,000 light-years away, came at a time when astronomers had an array of high-tech equipment that they could aim at it. What researchers saw suggested a more complex mechanism of explosion than models at the time contained.

When a star with at least 10 times the sun's mass exhausts its hydrogen fuel, it's fusion furnace begins burning layers of ever- heavier elements, which themselves are byproducts of earlier burning. …

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