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Researchers shine bright light on dark matter

posted 10 Aug 2012, 11:17 by Mpelembe   [ updated 10 Aug 2012, 11:18 ]

While for sky-watchers, all eyes have been on Mars since NASA's latest rover landed, researchers in California are looking deeper into space. Using supercomputers, a team of physicists is taking astronomical data and transforming them into spectacular, three dimensional animations designed to give scientists a better understanding of how the universe is structured.

Tom Abel knows a great deal about the universe. He's an astrophysicist at the SLAC Accelerator Laboratory in Menlo Park, California, but in recent years, he's also become a movie producer of sorts. Using astronomical data compiled from research centres all over the world, Abel and his colleagues are creating accurate, three dimensional renderings of the universe and its relationship with dark matter.
"Dark matter is the whole backbone of the cosmic web. Without dark matter we wouldn't be here. Without dark matter there wouldn't be any galaxies. There wouldn't be any stars in fact either. It is key to make sense of why the universe is the way it is," said Abel.

While dark matter makes up the majority of mass in the Universe, scientists are only now starting to understand it. Unlike normal matter, dark matter doesn't absorb light, making it invisible. Scientists only know of its existence because of its gravitational force. So Abel and software developer Ralf Kaehler are using supercomputers to illustrate how objects that we can see in space are affected by dark matter. Algorithms are used to analyse massive amounts of astronomical data to form a picture of how the universe works.

"For us computing is not about numbers. For us computing is about intuition and about learning the physics. We are trying to understand how many different physical processes all essentially work together to allow galaxies to come about, stars to come about, planets to come about. So it is really the whole story of the universe that we are trying to grasp and get our heads around."

Kaehler says the ability to create these movies would have been impossible a few years ago.

Advances in computer processing power and algorithmic design allow the team to compress the data associated with a star formation, which can take tens of millions of years, into a one minute long animated sequence.

"On the computer you can directly simulate the formation of a star, for example, the formation of a galaxy and then watch the whole time span the simulation took to," said Kaehler.

Oliver Hahn, another member of the team, says the ability to visualise data, dramatically improves the quality of research for scientists.

"The movies are all very high resolution and very high definition but then we have the research tool where can just sit there and rotate around our data and zoom in and cut off pieces and just look at it interactively," said Hahn, a physicist at SLAC.

"We are doing these visualisations not only because it's pretty. We are very happy that it also comes out nice but the key is for us to really understand the physics. What actually happened, and when you see it in a moving image you see those features. Humans are made for that," said Abel.

Abel says his animations will improve over time to play an even more important role in research - providing detailed images of the past and a clearer picture of the future.