NASA uses a climate simulation supercomputer to better understand black hole jets

NASA's Discover supercomputer simulated the extreme conditions of the distant cosmos.
Chris Young
NASA's Discover supercomputer.
Images from NASA's black hole jet simulations.

NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center / Conceptual Image Lab 

A team of scientists from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center used the U.S. space agency's Center for Climate Simulation (NCCS) Discover supercomputer to run 100 simulations of jets emerging from supermassive black holes.

The scientists set out to better understand these jets — massive beams of energetic particles shooting out into the cosmos — as they play a crucial role in the evolution of the universe.

Essentially, "they regulate the gas in the center of the galaxy and affect things like the star-formation rate and how the gas mixes with the surrounding galactic environment," study lead Ryan Tanner, a postdoc in NASA Goddard's X-ray Astrophysics Laboratory, explained in a press release.

Simulating space jets

The scientists, who published their findings in a paper in The Astronomical Journal, focused on simulating low-luminosity jets, as these are harder to detect in real-world astronomical observations. "For our simulations, we focused on less-studied, low-luminosity jets and how they determine the evolution of their host galaxies," Tanner explained. "High-luminosity jets are easier to find because they create massive structures that can be seen in radio observations."

For their NASA supercomputer-powered simulation, the researchers used the total mass of a hypothetical galaxy about the size of the Milky Way as a starting point. They also used spiral galaxies, including NGC 1386, NGC 3079, and NGC 4945, as a reference for gas distribution and other properties.

NASA uses a climate simulation supercomputer to better understand black hole jets
Images from NASA's black hole jet simulations.

"Being able to use NASA supercomputing resources allowed us to explore a much larger parameter space than if we had to use more modest resources," Tanner explained. "This led to uncovering important relationships that we could not discover with a more limited scope."

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Out of the 100 simulations the team ran, they selected 19 for publication, totaling 800,000 core hours of processing time on the NCCS Discover supercomputer. A video showing the simulations in motion can be viewed below.

NASA's supercomputer findings

Thanks to their simulations, the team found that low-luminosity jets interact with their host galaxies a lot more than their high-luminosity counterparts. They also discovered that low-luminosity jets affect and are affected by the interstellar medium within their galaxy, meaning they will exist in a wider variety of shapes than high-luminosity jets.

On its website, NASA says the more than 127,232-core Discover supercomputer is "an assembly of multiple Linux scalable units built upon commodity components capable of nearly 8.1 petaflops, or 8,100 trillion floating-point operations per second."

The impressive machine is predominantly used for short and long-term climate predictions. In this case, however, it was utilized to simulate the extreme conditions present in regions of space millions of light-years away from our pale blue dot.