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Astronomy: Exploring the Expanding Universe

Visualizing the Big Picture

While telescopes, spacecraft, and other means of collecting data are critical, not all researchers turn to the heavens for inspiration. Some turn to their computers to take a closer look at the big picture.

Visualizing the big picture - click for details The Grand Challenge Cosmology Consortium (GC3) is a collaboration of cosmologists, astrophysicists, and computer scientists who are modeling the birth and early infancy of the universe. Consortium members use high performance computers at the NSF-supported National Supercomputing Centers-the precursor of the current Partnerships for Advanced Computational Infrastructure program-to create a three-dimensional model of the formation of galaxies and large-scale structures in the early universe. The consortium uses some of the most powerful supercomputers available to perform the billions of calculations required to figure out how the universe came to be.

In an effort to understand the role of dark matter in galaxy cluster formation, Michael Norman and Gregory Bryan carried out a simulation at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 1994. The simulation produced a model that accurately predicted the number and arrangement of galaxy clusters. The prediction was confirmed by recent observations by an orbiting X-ray satellite. While the simulation did not capture exactly the measurable ratio of luminous gas to dark matter, efforts are underway to improve the model's resolution. "Everyone is motivated to find out what dark matter is," says Norman, "but there is nothing definitive yet."

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the GC3 is its ability to simulate situations never seen by humans. In a public display of computer simulation, members of GC3 teamed up with IMAX to create the 1996 film Cosmic Voyage, a short feature that was nominated for an Academy Award. From the safety of their theater seats, audiences can view the life of the universe, from its explosive, Big Bang birth, to the current hubbub of galaxy life. The film also includes a startling animation of what would happen if two spiral galaxies—like the Milky Way and neighboring Andromeda Galaxy—were to collide.

PDF Version
Voyage to the Center of the Sun
New Tools, New Discoveries
At the Center of the Milky Way
The Origins of the Universe
The Hunt for Dark Matter
Shedding Light on Cosmic Voids
Visualizing the Big Picture
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