Galactic Winds Push Researchers to Probe Galaxies at Unprecedented Scale

August 9, 2017

August 9 — When astronomers peer into the universe, what they see often exceeds the limits of human understanding. Such is the case with low-mass galaxies—galaxies a fraction of the size of our own Milky Way.

These small, faint systems made up of millions or billions of stars, dust, and gas constitute the most common type of galaxy observed in the universe. But according to astrophysicists’ most advanced models, low-mass galaxies should contain many more stars than they appear to contain.

A leading theory for this discrepancy hinges on the fountain-like outflows of gas observed exiting some galaxies. These outflows are driven by the life and death of stars, specifically stellar winds and supernova explosions, which collectively give rise to a phenomenon known as “galactic wind.” As star activity expels gas into intergalactic space, galaxies lose precious raw material to make new stars. The physics and forces at play during this process, however, remain something of a mystery.

To better understand how galactic wind affects star formation in galaxies, a two-person team led by the University of California, Santa Cruz, turned to high-performance computing at the Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility (OLCF), a US Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science User Facility located at DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL). Specifically, UC Santa Cruz astrophysicist Brant Robertson and University of Arizona graduate student Evan Schneider (now a Hubble Fellow at Princeton University), scaled up their Cholla hydrodynamics code on the OLCF’s Cray XK7 Titan supercomputer to create highly detailed simulations of galactic wind.

“The process of generating galactic winds is something that requires exquisite resolution over a large volume to understand—much better resolution than other cosmological simulations that model populations of galaxies,” Robertson said. “This is something you really need a machine like Titan to do.”

After earning an allocation on Titan through DOE’s INCITE program, Robertson and Schneider started small, simulating a hot, supernova-driven wind colliding with a cool cloud of gas across 300 light years of space. (A light year equals the distance light travels in 1 year.) The results allowed the team to rule out a potential mechanism for galactic wind.

Now the team is setting its sights higher, aiming to generate nearly a trillion-cell simulation of an entire galaxy, which would be the largest simulation of a galaxy ever. Beyond breaking records, Robertson and Schneider are striving to uncover new details about galactic wind and the forces that regulate galaxies, insights that could improve our understanding of low-mass galaxies, dark matter, and the evolution of the universe.

Source: Oak Ridge Leadership Computing Facility

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