A Star Is Reborn

Ranger supercomputer renders Sun anew for most advanced planetarium show ever produced

Aug. 10, 2009

“We live on a planet powered by a star.”

–Whoopi Goldberg, “Journey to the Stars”
Hayden Planetarium, American Museum of Natural History

The Sun is the source of life and light, a bright companion in our travels through space.

In recent years, new observations, new theories and new computer models of the Sun have shed light on the creation, sustenance and ultimate demise of our nearest stellar neighbor, giving rise to new theories of how life arose in the universe.

Sun viewed as a red giant nearly engulfing Earth
Traveling some five billion years into the future, viewers witness a startling sight: our own familiar yellow Sun has ballooned into a red giant nearly engulfing Earth.

Watch the “Journey to the Stars” trailer (1:18). (Video opens in a new window on the OnCampus Web site.)Image: American Museum of Natural History

“We’ve gone through a period of great exploration,” said Mordecai-Mark Mac Low, curator at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). “We went from only looking at nearby galaxies to reaching all the way across the universe. That expansion of our vision has yielded an enormously better understanding of how the universe is developing and where we came from. And that’s what really inspired a large part of this Space Show–trying to convey that we now understand how this all works.”

“Journey to the Stars,” which debuted at the American Museum of Natural History on July 4, is being hailed as the most beautiful and advanced planetarium show ever produced. Narrated by Whoopi Goldberg, the 25-minute film takes viewers on a vertiginous journey through the universe, visiting glowing star nurseries, dying red giants and the churning interior of the Sun. The most scientifically accurate Space Show to date, “Journey to the Stars” projects cutting-edge visualizations of the universe onto the 87-foot, seven-million-pixel dome of the Hayden Sphere at the Rose Center for Earth and Space in New York City–one of the world’s preeminent planetariums.

But the production would not have been possible without the collaboration of The University of Texas at Austin. The film’s most compelling scientific visuals were produced using supercomputing resources provided by the Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC) at the university.

“This is not something we could have undertaken without TACC’s computational resources,” said Rosamond J. Kinzler, executive director of the Space Show and director of the National Center for Science, Literacy, Education and Technology. “TACC’s rendering power has been an incredibly successful and integral part of the forward progress of the Stars show.”

The Ranger supercomputer is among the assets in the university’s intellectual and technology arsenal. With more than 62,000 parallel processors, Ranger is one of the most powerful systems in the world for general science and is used to solve problems in climate modeling, drug design, space shuttle re-entry, swine flu defense and dozens of other crucial scientific questions.

We knew that we wanted to treat the Sun in a terrific and powerful way, to reveal not just the surface, but to take our audience into the Sun, through the convective layer and into the core. The results are beautiful. No one has seen the Sun in this way and the computational resources from TACC made it possible. Rosamond J. Kinzler, executive director of the Space Show and director of the National Center for Science, Literacy, Education and Technology

TACC contributed assistance to the previous Hayden Space Show, “Cosmic Collisions,” but this collaboration with the Hayden Planetarium represents TACC’s deepest foray into the realm of digital filmmaking.

“The majority of our cycles, both computing and human, go toward enabling scientific research and knowledge discovery, but there is an educational component to our mission, too,” said John (Jay) Boisseau, TACC director. “This seemed like an interesting project because it’s both scientific and educational. The people who are doing the computations are astrophysics researchers, so we’re supporting their research while helping the Museum to communicate the results of that research to a much broader audience.”

HPC and Hollywood

The practice of using mathematical algorithms and computing power to produce realistic visual effects for movies is widespread.

“We’re doing the same magic as any Hollywood filmmaker worth his salt these days–high-resolution digital imaging using high-performance computers,” Mac Low said. “But I don’t think the average audience member is aware of that. It’s become so pervasive that it’s started to fade into the background.”

The link between Hollywood and supercomputing was officially recognized last year when Ronald Fedkiw, a professor of computer science at Stanford University, received an Academy Award for technical achievement for his physics-based algorithms of realistic fluids such as waves in “Pirates of the Caribbean” and liquid skin in “Terminator 3.”

“Journey to the Stars” employs equally realistic visualizations to represent the physics of gas and plasma, rather than liquids. Every scene in the “Stars” show is based on real observations or physics-based simulations, according to Mac Low. The film combined the research of 40 leading scientists from the United States and abroad with observational data from National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) satellites and ground-based telescopes.

Rose Center for Earth and Space
The centerpiece of the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the American Museum of Natural History is the new Hayden Planetarium, presenting the most technologically advanced space theater in the world.

Piecing together a new narrative of life’s origins, the Space Show explains how dark matter’s gravity gathered the primordial gas in the universe to form the first stars, and how these massive stars exploded, seeding the galaxy with new stars and the chemical elements that made life possible.

As Goldberg explains, “Though it may sound incredible, your body actually contains about a teaspoon’s worth of this stuff, formed 13 billion years ago, by the very first stars.”

Journey to the Center of the Sun

The centerpiece of the show, and the most difficult sequence to depict scientifically, is a flight into the center of the Sun. There, convective plasma roils, nuclear fusion rocks the Sun’s core, and undulating magnetic waves spiral toward the distant reaches of space.

These sequences are based on the research of Juri Toomre, a professor of astrophysics at The University of Colorado at Boulder. They represent “the best models of the Sun in the world,” said Mac Low, “and they run on Ranger.”

Toomre has been studying solar dynamics for more than a decade. A self-proclaimed “deep miner” of the Sun, he has focused on the Sun’s internal, unseen structures rather than its outer regions.

“It’s not enough to know what comes out of the surface,” Toomre said. “We would like to understand how the magnetic engine of a star works, how it churns away and how it builds orderly fields. This is one of the top 10 questions in physics.”

Jay Boisseau
Jay Boisseau leads the university’s Texas Advanced Computing Center.

To understand these phenomena, Toomre sets his sights beyond the reach of any telescope to perceive parts of the Sun that can only be observed indirectly. And complex computer simulations of the magnetohydrodynamics of the solar interior are some of the most useful tools for his investigations.

“Simulations are our eyes for thinking,” he said “They provide insights and give us hints about the dynamics in the Sun.”

Through 3-D simulations on Ranger, Toomre’s post-doctoral student, Ben Brown, made an unexpected discovery of wreaths of magnetism occupying a large portion of the inside of the Sun. Because they’re within the upper 30 percent of the Sun–the convection zone–one can’t see these phenomena directly. However, the signature of these wreaths can be detected in the eruption of magnetic fields at the surface, according to Toomre.

“It may force us to reconsider some of our ideas about how the solar interior operates,” he said.

The Hayden Space Show capitalizes on the Toomre group’s simulations and the unique capabilities offered by TACC’s supercomputers.

“We knew that we wanted to treat the Sun in a terrific and powerful way, to reveal not just the surface, but to take our audience into the Sun, through the convective layer and into the core,” said Kinzler, the show’s producer. “The results are beautiful. No one has seen the Sun in this way and the computational resources from TACC made it possible.”

The conduct of scientific research is an esoteric kind of activity. But the results of that science are of interest and importance to everyone. And one of the best ways of explaining that to people is through entertainment. Jay Boisseau, director of the Texas Advanced Computing Center, The University of Texas at Austin

Inspiring Tomorrow’s Scientists

For TACC, the film represented an opportunity to bring large-scale computing, advanced visualization methods and new knowledge about the Sun to the masses, even if much of the magic happened behind the scenes in TACC’s computer room.

High-impact Space Shows play an important role in the scientific ecosystem. “Journey to the Stars,” and Hayden’s three predecessors space shows (“Cosmic Collisions,” “The Search for Life: Are We Alone?” and “Passport to the Universe”) have been wildly popular and now reach more than 10 million people a year, a high percentage of them students. “Journey to the Stars” communicates to the next generation of astrophysicists the excitement of researchers who are peering for the first time into an impenetrable world.

“The conduct of scientific research is an esoteric kind of activity,” Boisseau said. “But the results of that science are of interest and importance to everyone. And one of the best ways of explaining that to people is through entertainment.”

“It’s important to maintain a strong interest in science among people who are making decisions about what they’re going to specialize in,” Mac Low said. “Our society requires us to encourage people to study science–and we rely on increasing our understanding of the world around us to maintain our health and well-being.”

By partnering with elite scientific institutions and enabling innovative solar research, TACC and The University of Texas at Austin have helped to deliver a new view of the stars and an experience of scientific delight to all those who take a “Journey to the Stars.”

“The light of the rising Sun clearly reveals what stars have made possible.
Everything we see around us was formed from elements made by stars.
None of it would be here without the sheltering warmth of our own star: the Sun.
Our journey to the stars is truly a journey to the heart of what we are.”

–Whoopi Goldberg, “Journey to the Stars”

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“Journey to the Stars” began on July 4 at the Hayden Planetarium, in the Rose Center for Earth and Space, American Museum of Natural History, in New York City, and will begin in fall 2009 at the collaborating institutions listed below.

The production was developed by the American Museum of Natural History, New York in collaboration with the California Academy of Sciences, San Francisco; GOTO INC, Tokyo, Japan; Papalote Museo del Niño, Mexico City, Mexico and Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, Washington, D.C.

“Journey to the Stars” was created by the American Museum of Natural History, with the support and partnership of the Heliophysics Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

Made possible through the sponsorship of Lockheed Martin Corporation. And proudly sponsored by Accenture.

Supercomputing resources provided by the Texas Advanced Computing Center at The University of Texas at Austin, through the TeraGrid, a project of the National Science Foundation.

For more information, contact: By Aaron Dubrow
Texas Advanced Computing Center

On the banner: In the stellar nursery within the Orion Nebula,
young stars are forming before our eyes from a giant cloud
of interstellar gas and dust much as the Sun did almost five
billion years ago. Image: American Museum of Natural History