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10/3/2011
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NASA Supercomputer Tackles Secrets Of Galaxies

Pleiades, the world's seventh most powerful supercomputer, simulates the origins and evolution of the cosmos, with an eye toward predicting its future.

NASA, Microsoft Reveal Mars In Pictures
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Slideshow: NASA, Microsoft Reveal Mars In Pictures
A NASA supercomputer has provided the most realistic simulation of the evolving universe that scientists have produced to date, giving researchers clues to how the cosmos continues to change and grow, according to the space agency.

NASA's Pleiades supercomputer, which is located at the NASA Ames Research Center, used simulation code called Bolshoi to show the distribution of dark matter across a span of one billion light years. Dark matter--a substance with much gravity that doesn't interact with normal matter and cannot be directly observed--comprises about 25% of the universe, and is the subject of much of NASA's work to study the origins and evolution of the universe.

Researchers hope to use the simulation to explain how galaxies and other aspects of the universe were formed and have evolved since the Big Bang, which occurred 13.7 billion years ago and is considered the origin of the universe, according to NASA.

[NASA wants the public to help it build applications. Read the details in NASA Unveils Space Apps Challenge.]

Custom software tools from NASA's data analysis and visualization team produced images and animations that show the formation and evolution of so-called "dark matter halos," which are the basis for the formation of galaxies. These are allowing scientists to analyze the results of the simulation for further research, according to NASA.

NASA collaborated with New Mexico State University Las Cruces and the University of California High-Performance Astrocomputing Center (UC-HIPACC) to complete the Bolshoi simulation. Astrophysicists from those institutions ran their code on Pleiades for 18 days, using millions of hours of computer time and generating reams of data, according to NASA.

The simulation itself used data gathered from NASA's Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) mission, according to NASA. WMAP measured the "cosmic microwave background" left over from the Big Bang, which was the first sign of early matter in the universe, to trace the formation of larger structures.

Pleiades is one of the most powerful supercomputers in the world, ranking seventh on a bi-annual list of the top existing supercomputers. The federal government runs five of the world's top 10 most powerful computers to power simulations that require massive compute power for a range of research activities.

NASA is engaged in a host of research to explain how the cosmos formed. Earlier this year, the agency teamed with the European Space Agency on the latter's Planck mission, to survey the whole sky at least four times by measuring radiation left over from the Big Bang. The goal of that mission also is to understand more about the formation of the universe, as well as its future fate.

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