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Supercomputer Breakthrough Allows Astronomers to Share ­niverse Simulations

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Visualization of the universe as it condenses around fluctuations in the density of dark and ordinary matter

Argonne National Lab and San Diego Supercomputer Center

Supercomputing has helped astrophysicists create massive models of the universe, but such simulations remain out of reach for many in the United States and around the world. That could all change after a successful test allowed scientists in Portland, Ore. to watch a Chicago-based simulation of how ordinary matter and mysterious dark matter evolved in the early universe.

The streaming event also took place in real-time, which means that teams in both Chicago and Portland could have theoretically played together in the simulation as easily as PC or console video gamers play together in online games.

The demo goes far beyond entertaining people with pretty 3-D journeys through the early universe. Only supercomputers can handle the huge amounts of data that make up the most sophisticated astrophysics models, and scientists can't always travel to places with supercomputing clusters to do their research. Having the ability to stream a fully rendered simulation online allows scientists to collaborate on research remotely and overcome the barriers of limited access to supercomputers.

"This is an example of trying to break down that barrier — a barrier that gets higher every day as simulations get more complex," said Mark Hereld, a computer scientist at Argonne National Laboratory (ANL) in Illinois.

Complex simulations have become necessary for tackling the tougher astrophysics puzzles such as dark matter. Scientists estimate that dark matter makes up over 70 percent of mass in the universe, but they can only detect the invisible substance by measuring the gravitational effect it has on visible ordinary matter. The latest simulation showed how ordinary matter and dark matter might interact over the course of almost 7 billion years, starting from the theoretical Big Bang at the beginning of the known universe. The universe is 13.7 billion years old.

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