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September 11, 2006

UCSC leads astrophysics research consortium

By Tim Stephens

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has awarded a five-year, $9.5 million grant to researchers studying the astrophysics of supernovae and gamma-ray bursts. The Computational Astrophysics Consortium includes researchers at five universities and three national laboratories and is led by Stan Woosley, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UCSC.

Stan Woosley

UCSC's Stan Woosley leads the Computational Astrophysics Consortium.

The consortium will use supercomputer simulations to study the most violent explosions in the universe -- supernovae (the massive explosions of dying stars) and gamma-ray bursts (mysterious blasts of intense radiation).

By studying the evolution of massive stars and their explosion as supernovae and gamma-ray bursts, the researchers will also gain new insights into how the "heavy" elements needed for life, such as oxygen and iron, are forged inside stars through the process of nucleosynthesis. When stars explode, the heavy elements created within them are ejected into space, eventually forming new stars and planets.

"The Computational Astrophysics Consortium will simulate these explosive phenomena and advance our understanding of not only the evolution of stars but also of nucleosynthesis and the mysterious 'dark energy' that makes up the majority of our universe," Woosley said.

In addition to UCSC, the partners in the consortium include UC Berkeley, Johns Hopkins University, Stanford University, University of Arizona, and the Lawrence Berkeley, Lawrence Livermore, and Los Alamos National Laboratories.

The consortium is part of DOE's Scientific Discovery through Advanced Computing (SciDAC) program, which develops new tools and techniques for computational modeling and simulations. Woosley also led the consortium's predecessor, the Supernova Science Center, which was established by the first round of SciDAC grants in 2001.

The earlier project resulted in powerful new simulations of supernovae, which the researchers now want to extend to a larger scale, Woosley said. The new consortium will undertake the most complete numerical simulations of nucleosynthesis in stars and supernova explosions ever performed.

In addition to providing a better understanding of supernovae, gamma-ray bursts, and nucleosynthesis, the consortium's efforts will yield theoretical databases that will allow more precise and reliable use of supernovae as "standard candles" for the determination of cosmological distances. In this way, Woosley said, the project will help scientists confront the greatest mystery in high-energy physics and astronomy today--the nature of the dark energy that is accelerating the expansion of the universe.

"Over the next five years, we will be addressing significant gaps in our understanding of these phenomena," Woosley said.

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