How do Astronomers Study the Formation of Stars?

By using supercomputers to simulate the birth and evolution of individual stars and star clusters in the Milky Way  

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Simulation of star formation region using specially created computer code and a state-of-the-art supercomputer. Credits: NASA Ames/David Ellsworth/Tim Sandstrom

Space news (astrophysics: studying star formation; 3-D computer simulations) – NASA Advanced Supercomputing laboratory located at NASA’s Ames Research Center – 

How do astronomers study the formation of stars? Astronomers use complex computer code, run on one of the fastest, most powerful supercomputers on Earth to simulate the processes involved in the formation of individual stars and star clusters in the Milky Way. Using simulations capturing a mix of gas, dust, magnetic fields, gravity and other physical phenomena, astrophysicists study the birth and evolution of young, nearby stars and star clusters.  

The image above was created using state-of-the-art Orion2 computer code written by geniuses at the University of California, Berkeley, and Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and simulated on the powerful, ultra-fast Pleiades supercomputer located at NASA Advanced Supercomputing complex. Considered the seventh most powerful supercomputer in the US, it was necessary to achieve results closely matching data obtained through observations made with the Hubble Space Telescope. 

“Our simulations, run on Pleiades and brought to life by the visualization team at the NAS facility at Ames, were critical to obtaining important new results that match with Hubble’s high-resolution images and other observations made by a variety of space and Earth-based telescopes,” said Richard Klein, adjunct professor at UC Berkeley and astrophysicist at LLNL. “A key result, supported by observation, is that some star clusters form like pearls in a chain along elongated, dense filaments inside molecular clouds—so-called “stellar nurseries.” 

Richard Klein. Credits: The University of California, Berkeley Department of Astronomy.

The video simulation here shows the evolution of a massive cloud of gas and dust over a period of 700,000 years. Astrophysicists used the computing power of the Pleiades supercomputer, operating using the Orion2 code to create this amazing cosmic tapestry. The gravitational collapse of the cloud results in the birth of a stellar object called an infrared dark cloud (IRDC) filament. Protostars begin to form within the cloud, highlighted by bright orange regions strewn across the body of the central and bordering filaments. 

“Without NASA’s vast computational resources, it would not have been possible for us to produce these immense and complex simulations that include all the output variables we need to get these new results and compare them with observations,” Klein explained. “The ORION2 simulations incorporate a complex mix of gravity, supersonic turbulence, hydrodynamics (motion of molecular gas), radiation, magnetic fields, and highly energetic gas outflows. The science team conducted many independent tests of each piece of physics in ORION against known data to demonstrate the code’s accuracy.” 

The Pleiades supercomputer. Credits: Ames Research Facility/NASA Advanced Supercomputing facility.

The team’s back at work trying to devise even better simulations of star formation by improving the resolution and zooming into the action. “Higher resolution in the simulations will enable us to study the details of the formation of stellar disks formed around protostars. These disks allow mass to transfer onto the protostars as they evolve, and are thought to be the structures within which planets eventually form,” said Klein.  

Dr. Richard Klein talking about a simulation of star formation. Credits: NASA/Ames Research Facility/NASA Advanced Supercomputing

More work to do

They’ll need additional time on Pleiades and lots of extra storage during the next few years to tweak their simulations. The team seems to be on the trail of a real breakthrough in understanding and knowledge concerning the processes leading to star formation in the Milky Way. They appear to have their collective eye on the bigger picture. “Understanding star formation is a grand challenge problem. Ultimately, our results support NASA’s science goal of determining the origin of stars and planets, as part of its larger challenge of figuring out the origin of the entire universe.” 

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