Comet Navigates the Solar Winds

By Oliver Peckham

October 7, 2021

Space weather has been getting a lot of attention lately, with research from University College London, the Princeton Physics Plasma Laboratory, the University of Alabama in Huntsville and NASA each getting their own HPCwire headlines over the past year or so for supercomputer-powered space weather research. Now, researchers from UCLA are joining the fray with simulations of geomagnetic storms enabled by the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC) and, appropriately, its Comet system.

For those in the dark, the threat of space weather is predominantly that it could put all of us in the dark: the disruptions caused by unusual solar weather (known, when they materialize on Earth, as geomagnetic storms) can cause serious disruptions to electronic devices across entire regions or even knock out power grids – like they did in Canada in 1989. So researchers at UCLA set out to understand these geomagnetic storms

Specifically, they wanted to understand how solar winds get hot and fast enough to cause disruptions here on Earth. “If we can predict the fluctuations in the solar wind and how they interact with other solar processes, we can better prepare for magnetic storms caused by the turbulence that can interfere with satellite and ground-based telecommunications,” explained Chen Shi, a postdoctoral researcher in earth and space sciences at UCLA, in an interview with SDSC’s Kimberly Mann Bruch.

To answer this question, the researchers turned to XSEDE allocations on the Comet supercomputer at SDSC, which delivers 2.76 peak petaflops through its 1,944 Intel Haswell CPU nodes and its 72 Nvidia GPU nodes. “The SDSC computational team gave us advice on improved ways to run our numerical simulations on Comet, which provided us with the necessary resources to conduct our study,” Shi said. “More and more researchers are viewing numerical simulations as an extremely helpful and necessary method to study heliophysics and plasma physics – we are fortunate to have access to supercomputers like Comet alongside the support staff that allows us to accomplish our research goals.”

The simulations revealed that the shear force between solar winds moving at different speeds determines some of the most important variables in the amount and distribution of energy. This confirmed observations made by NASA’s Parker Solar Probe. “Our simulations not only agreed with the satellite data, but also provide detailed information not possible to obtain from the single-point satellite measurement,” Shi said. “The Comet simulations can provide global information on most of the structures and processes happening in the heliosphere while the satellites only observe specific points in space.”

To learn more about this research, read the reporting from SDSC here.

Header image: an artist’s concept of NASA’s Parker Solar Probe observing the Sun. Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins APL/Steve Gribben.

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