On ray beams, death stars and petaflops

Do you nova me? The heavenly Crab Nebula, part of the 1054 supernova.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

A national research team led by Stony Brook University scientists is about to get a close-up look at neutron-star explosions, thermonuclear supernovae and other spectacularly volatile astrophysical phenomena.

At least, they’ll get up close and personal with simulated space explosions, courtesy of one of the world’s fastest supercomputers.

A project led by SBU Department of Physics and Astronomy professors Michael Zingale and Alan Calder has been awarded 45 million “processor hours” on the Titan Cray XK7, billed by host Oak Ridge National Laboratory as “the nation’s most powerful supercomputer for open science” (theoretical peak performance: 27,000 trillion calculations per second, or 27 petaflops).

Start your petaflops: SBU professors (front, left to right) Alan Calder and Michael Zingale and graduate students Donald Willcox and Maria Barrios are going to space, sort of.

Start your petaflops: SBU professors (front, left to right) Alan Calder and Michael Zingale and graduate students Donald Willcox and Maria Barrios are going to space, sort of.

Zingale and Calder – along with two SBU graduate students and co-investigators from Oak Ridge, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the University of California, Los Alamo National Laboratory and the University of Tennessee – will spend their petaflops recreating complex astronomical events like X-ray bursts and white-dwarf explosions.

The idea is to gather clues needed to solve a host of astrophysics problems, with a particular focus on troublesome fusion reactions blowing up all over the universe.

“The supercomputer hours broaden our ability to explore a multitude of configurations of these stellar explosions,” said Zingale, also an affiliate of SBU’S Institute for Advanced Computational Science. “Our focus will be on X-ray bursts, which are a layer of transferred material on the surface of a neutron star that explodes, and thermonuclear supernovae, the explosion of a white dwarf star.”

The processor time was awarded by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science through its Innovative and Novel Computational Impact on Theory and Experiment program. INCITE is designed to recognize and support national research projects with high potential for accelerating discovery.

All told, the 2017 INCITE program awarded billions of processor hours on the Titan Cray XK7 and the IBM Blue Gene/Q, hosted by Illinois’ Argonne National Laboratory, to multi-disciplined researchers across the country.

A processor hour, or CPU hour, is the equivalent of one hour’s worth of 100 percent of a central processor’s computational abilities. Most programs don’t use anything near 100 percent of a CPU’s power, and when you’re counting computations in petaflops, a single processor hour is a fairly chunky bit of computing.

With 45 million of them coming, the SBU-led project, “Approaching Exascale Models of Astrophysical Explosions,” figures to do some serious final-frontier exploration.

“The award and our continued use and development of simulations using this world-renowned supercomputer will further advance our understanding of astrophysical explosions,” noted Calder, also an affiliate of the IACS.

The Zingale-Calder effort – one of only six astrophysics projects nationwide to be awarded by the 2017 INCITE program – received a similar award for supercomputing hours in 2014, according to SBU. A full list of 2017 INCITE awardees is available here.


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