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At the University of Chicago Center for Astrophysical Thermonuclear Flashes, scientists study the physics of exploding stars and the nuclear detonations that occur when matter in space is crushed by gravity onto the surfaces of extremely dense stars. Exploding stars, or supernovae, emit ten billion times more power than the sun, and shine as brightly as an entire galaxy of stars. Former Center Director Robert Rosner explains that learning more about supernovae will help answer two important questions about the Universe.
"Supernovae are enormously bright, so they can be seen at great distances. And because most of them seem to shine with nearly equal intensity, we have tried to use them to measure the distance to remote galaxies," he says. "If you read in the papers that the size of the universe just increased or decreased, it's probably because the estimate of the brightness of supernovae changed. To understand the true size of the Universe, we need to determine whether these incredibly bright objects can be relied on as the Universe's 'standard candles.' This project will allow us to do that."
Supernovae play another key role: they produce the Universe's heavy elements. Elements up to the density of iron are produced over many millions of years before the stars explode, while the heaviest elements like gold, platinum and uranium are created during the explosion.
"We have been called 'children of the stars' because most of the atoms in our bodies were created in ancient stars that exploded as supernovae more than five billion years ago, scattering the dust out of which the earth and solar system formed," says Fausto Cattaneo, an astrophysicist at Chicago and a co-investigator on the project. "And if you are married and wear a wedding band, the gold in that band was created during one of these supernova explosions."
Chicago scientists work closely with their colleagues at Argonne National Laboratory, which the University operates for the Department of Energy. Their collaboration builds on an existing joint program in computational science that makes use of an ultra-high-speed computer network; a multi-terabyte data storage system; and virtual reality equipment that can create three-dimensional, virtual reality projections of the cosmic explosions.