Humans were obsessed with the stars and exploration long before the written word. From Stonehenge and the Mayan calendar, to American mission commander Neil Armstrong and pilot Buzz Aldrin who manned the lunar module Eagle on July 20, 1969, humans have been reaching, literally, for the stars and the planets beyond. The quest for “One giant leap for mankind” is seemingly never ending.
In a major space policy speech at Kennedy Space Center on April 15, 2010, now former U.S. President Barack Obama predicted a manned Mars mission to orbit the planet by the mid-2030s, followed by a landing. We’ve already traveled far beyond our blue planet, photographed in detail the shocking landscape of Pluto, skirted the giant gas planet Jupiter it all its red glory and now it’s time to put down some roots. Humankind is determined to take our Manifest Destiny beyond this mortal coil and colonize an alien planet. Next stop, Mars.
However, all the glamour and prose aside, you don’t need to be an astrophysicist to know that space travel is exceedingly dangerous. For example, cosmic rays, radiation, microgravity, high-speed micrometeorites … just to name a few life-ending conditions space pioneers will face every day in mankind’s quest to colonize Mars.
Peter Delamere, Professor of Space Physics at the University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Geophysical Institute, knows a lot about the weather. Space weather, to be precise. Because space weather impacts many aspects of our near-Earth space environment, it also poses a potential risk to Earth-orbiting satellites, transpolar flights, and, of course, human space exploration. Thus, comparative studies of planetary space environments are crucial for understanding the basic physics that determine space weather conditions. One of the most dramatic manifestations of space weather can be found in the aurorae, or as most of us know it, the aurora borealis or aurora australis.
Turns out, we already know that Earth, Jupiter and Saturn all have aurora lights in their respective polar regions. It’s just that the space weather that creates these lights is fundamentally different. Studies show that Saturn’s aurora may be driven internally by Saturn’s rapid rotation rather than by the solar wind, as is the case on Earth. Ultimately, space weather research strives to make accurate predictions that will help mitigate risks to ongoing space activity and human exploration.
Illustration of the magnetic field topology and flux circulation at Saturn. Flows are shown with red arrows. Magnetic fields are shown in purple (mapping to outer magnetosphere) and blue (showing bend back and bend forward configurations). From Delamere et al. 2015.
The figures above show results from a three dimensional simulation of the Kelvin-Helmholtz instability (counter-streaming flows that generate vortices) at Saturn’s magnetopause boundary. This is the boundary that mediates the solar wind interaction with Saturn’s magnetosphere. The complicated surface waves mix solar wind and magnetospheric plasma, causing a, “viscous-like” interaction with the solar wind. Similar processes happen on Earth, but are highly exaggerated on Saturn and Jupiter. The lines are magnetic field lines.
Innovation in the field of Space Plasma Physics, which is driving our collective understanding of space weather and its potential impact, is highly dependent upon access to HPC resources. Numerical simulation requires vast spatial domains inherent in a space plasma environment. So, having access to local reliable HPC resources, such as Mellanox HPC solutions, enables the Computational Space Physics group at the Geophysical Institute to further this important research. The Delamere group, which is part of the Computational Space Physics group at the Geophysical Institute, is currently funded by numerous NASA projects amounting to over $2M, all of which require considerable HPC resources.
When Congress established the Geophysical Institute in 1946, they could not have possibly predicted the depth and impact of the research that would be conducted and the work that would be done there. From space physics and aeronomy; atmospheric sciences; snow, ice, and permafrost; seismology; volcanology; remote sensing; and tectonics and sedimentation, the institute continues to make discoveries and innovations that are changing the world for the better.
In January 2017, with support from the M. J. Murdock Charitable Trust, the Geophysical Institute, UAF vice chancellor of research, UAF International Arctic Research Center, and UAF IDeA Network of Biomedical Research Excellence, UAF Research Computing Systems engineers deployed Mellanox InfiniBand solutions across multiple racks to form their HPC system. We knew something of the work being done at the Geophysical Institute at that time but even we at Mellanox didn’t yet understand the full impact of their research. From deep within the earth, to the far reaches of our solar system, Mellanox’s leadership in HPC solutions is helping to solve some of science’s toughest challenges. The final blog in this series will come full circle and focus on the long-term data and research driven by Uma S. Bhatt, Professor of Atmospheric Sciences at the Geophysical Institute; and the efforts underway to study the climate in the most inhospitable and inaccessible region of our planet, the Arctic.