European funding for simulating stellar explosions

Project by Hans-Thomas Janka from the Max Planck Institute for Astrophysics accepted for an ERC Advanced Grant

End of July the European Research Council announced that Hans-Thomas Janka will receive an ERC Advanced Grant for modeling stellar collapse and explosions. This funding, awarded to independent and exceptional researchers based only on scientific excellence, will secure the future of this research group for the next years. With the new project, the scientists will trace in detail the final stages of heavy stars with a special emphasis on simulating the entire evolution of a supernova explosion, starting with the collapse of the stellar core following its last nuclear burning phases all the way to the final formation of a supernova remnant.

Fig. 1 top: The supernova remnant Cassiopeia A is about 330 years old. Its asymmetries originate from the earliest phases of the explosion.
Sources: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; Optical: NASA/STScI; Infrared: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Steward/Oliver Krause et al. (Max Planck Institute for Astronomy).
Fig. 1 bottom: Formation of asymmetries in a three-dimensional computer simulation.
Source: Nicolay J. Hammer, H.-T. Janka, E. Müller (Max Planck Institut for Astrophysics); Visualisation: Markus Rampp (Rechenzentrum Garching).

Fig. 2: MPA scientist Hans-Thomas Janka will receive ERC Advanced Grant.
© 2010 H.-A. Arnolds/MPA

Stars with more than eight to ten times the mass of our Sun end their lives in a gigantic explosion, in which the stellar gas is expelled into the surrounding space with enormous power. Such supernovae belong to the most energetic and brightest phenomena in the universe and can outshine a whole galaxy for weeks. They are the cosmic origin of chemical elements like carbon, oxygen, silicon, and iron, of which the Earth and our bodies are made of, and which are bred in massive stars over millions of years or freshly fused in the stellar explosion.

What, however, causes the disruption of the star? How can the implosion of the stellar core be reversed to an explosion? Unfortunately (or luckily!) the processes in the centre of exploding stars cannot be reproduced in the laboratory, and many solar masses of intransparent stellar gas obscure our view into the deep interior of supernovae. Research is therefore strongly dependent on most sophisticated and challenging computer simulations, in which the complex mathematical equations are solved that describe the motion of the stellar gas and the physical processes that occur at the extreme conditions in the collapsing stellar core. For this task the most powerful existing supercomputers are used, but still it has been possible to conduct such calculations only with radical and crude simplifications until recently.

With the new funding for the project "Modeling Stellar Collapse and Explosion: Evolving Progenitor Stars to Supernova Remnants", the scientists will now be able to develop detailed computer models to understand the processes in collapsing stars in all three spatial dimensions. This ambitious project aims to obtain more reliable predictions of both the chemical elements that are produced in supernova explosions and the neutrino and gravitational wave signals from future galactic supernovae. Moreover, the theoretical models will help astronomers to interpret observations of the many detailed properties in nearby, gaseous and compact remnants of past supernova explosions. In return, this will allow conclusions to be drawn on the still incompletely understood internal processes that triggered the explosions of the stars.

The ERC funding will support the project for five years with up to 2.9 million Euros. According to the ERC, the projects to be funded should aim high, both with regards to the ambition of the envisaged scientific achievements as well as to the creativity and originality of proposed approaches. Peer reviewers evaluate all proposals and rank the projects; only the highest ranked proposals are then offered an ERC grant. The supernova project came out on top among more than 2000 proposals and will thus receive attractive, long-term funding, which is only awarded to active researchers who have a track-record of significant research achievements in the last 10 years.


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