The Fastest Supercomputer for Astronomy Comes Online in Japan


NAOJ

The supercomputer for astronomy “ATERUI II”.

The world’s fastest supercomputer for astrophysical calculations came online today. The room-sized parallel computer will model our universe—from star formation to the distribution of dark matter—with more precision than ever before.

The mega-machine is officially called Cray XC50, but nicknamed ATERUI II. It links 40,200 cores to achieve a theoretical peak performance of 3.087 petaflops. This year, about 150 researchers will use ATERUI II.

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Astronomers rely on computational models of the stars, galaxies, and the universe to develop theories of astrophysics. This computational astronomy is a relatively new science compared to the traditional ways of doing research: observing the cosmos using telescopes and doing theoretical astronomy using math. But thanks to the computing advances of recent decades, this new way to study the universe could prove as significant as direct observation was to Galileo and mathematical theory was to Einstein.

ATERUI II, built by the National Astronomical Observatory of Japan (NAOJ), is now the best tool for the computational job. Eiichiro Kokubo, Project Director for the Center for Computational Astrophysics (CfCA) at NAOJ, says in a press release: “A new ‘telescope’ for theoretical astronomy has opened its eyes. I expect that ATERUI II will explore the universe through more realistic simulations.”

The front view of ATERUI II, which has the name in stylized Japanese (阿弖流為 弐) written on the housing, designed by artist Jun Kosaka.

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The supercomputer replaces a previous model from CfCA—the first “ATERUI,” named for a Japanese chief who led his people against conquest around 800 A.D. The new computer has three times better performance and is connected to a high-speed network that allows astronomers around the world to use it from home.

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ATERUI II will be used to create models for a wide range of astronomical phenomena, including the formation of binary stars, the calculated distribution of dark matter, and the birth of the universe, which, for the first 380,000 years of its existence, was too dense to emit light and so is entirely understood through models of physics.

“The age of the universe is 13.8 billion years,” Kokubo says in a YouTube video from the CfCA. “With ATERUI II, we’ll explore the universe, from the past to the future.”

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The supercomputer will be powerful enough to model the gravitational forces of all 200 billion or more stars in the Milky Way, something previous computers could only do by grouping stars together and modeling the gravity of each group. By comparing such models to observational data, such as the Gaia spacecraft’s recent map of around 1.3 billion stars distributed across a quarter of the galaxy, astrophysicists will have a way to test the models created by ATERUI II. Wherever discrepancies exist, there could lurk undiscovered astrophysics.

The universe is the most complex system researchers have ever attempted to model, and yet there is a vast wealth of information available in a simulated picture of all our known physical laws. It is a third view of the cosmos, and alongside the universe we see with our optics and radio dishes, and the laws we discover in our proofs and physics laboratories, our computer models will likely produce discoveries we cannot even imagine.

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