Supercomputing Reveals Universe Secrets

Nicole Tsai | April 14, 2012

Artist’s depiction of an expanding Universe. Courtesy of Chris Blake and Sam Moorfield.

Over 1.5 million luminous galaxies are currently being measured by astronomers to better understand the expansion of the Universe, and a third of them may already contain the key to reveal what it is really made of. A Yale research group led by Professor of Physics Nikhil Padmanabhan hopes to change this by using supercomputers to analyze data from the Sloan Digital Sky Survey (SDSS).

Working with researchers from dozens of other major institutions, Padmanabhan and his team are working to create a 3-D map of the luminous galaxies in the universe. The SDSS Collaboration began gathering data in 2008 and will continue through the year 2014. The full-color map is composed of more than one trillion pixels and is so detailed that viewing it entirely would require approximately 500,000 high-definition televisions. Padmanabhan and Antonio J. Cuesta, a postdoctoral student in the group, currently use the BulldogM supercomputer in the Yale High Performance Computing Group to interpret the cosmological parameters obtained from SDSS measurements. “We need to explore the effect of each and every value of our 10 parameters simultaneously, and the supercomputer is needed to sample the huge number of data points,” says Cuesta.

Ultimately, the resulting map can be used to gain insight into the spatial distribution and clustering of galaxies while allowing for a better understanding of the relative quantities of ordinary matter, dark matter, dark energy, and neutrinos in the universe. This data contributes to the search for an accurate theoretical model of the evolution of the universe. “The map will bring the universe into sharp focus,” Cuesta believes, and there is no telling what new understanding of the universe such clarity will bring.

Distribution of galaxies measured by the SDSS. Courtesy of SDSS Collaboration.