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Plasma flows may shed light on predicting sunspot cycles

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(Mar. 23, 2012) — Geophysics researcher Cherish Bauer-Reich wants to look inside the sun. More accurately, she wants to simulate the sun to study plasma flows associated with sunspot cycles. The cycles play a role in solar storms, which can affect satellites and disrupt a host of modern communication technologies, from cell phones to power grids.

Scientists recently warned about a series of solar storms in early March, concerned that it could affect global positioning systems, power grids, satellites and airplane travel. With the sun's normal cycle, these very active solar storms are expected to continue.

Bauer-Reich, a research engineer at North Dakota State University's Center for Nanoscale Science and Engineering, is pursuing her doctorate degree in geophysics, using supercomputing power to create a model of the sun. The Center for Computationally Assisted Science and Technology (CCAST) at North Dakota State University provides the power for Bauer-Reich's research. She found that CCAST in Fargo provided an easily accessible route to the supercomputing needed. NDSU's supercomputing center (CCAST) is available to students, faculty and staff researchers, and available for researchers and industry that are partnering with NDSU.

While people have heard of sunspots, most aren't aware of what actually causes them. "It's a large tube of magnetic flux basically," says Bauer-Reich. "Sunspots reduce the amount of heat and the amount of light coming out of the sun, which is why they look dark. It's because they're at different temperatures than the rest of the area around them."

Sunspots tend to work in cycles, starting at high latitudes and then migrating toward the equator. "Helioseismologists study vibrations in the sun and they image what's underneath the outer layer. What they've found is that when these sunspots are popping up, there's also a flow right next to them, so that the plasma is flowing at a different speed than on either side of them. What I'm studying is how strong that flow has to be," says Bauer-Reich. "The only way to do it is to come up with these models that try to predict behavior."

Bauer-Reich expects running all the computer models on CCAST will take approximately a year, followed by the data analysis. According to Dr. Martin Ossowski, CCAST director, major research areas at the facility include: materials science, renewable energy, multiprocessor electronic circuitry, simulation of atmospheric plasma, monitoring the health of bridges and vehicles, computational biology, tissue engineering, and agroinformatics.

"We assist researchers who are pursuing discovery in energy, materials, environment, health, security, and in other areas of national research priority," said Ossowski. He notes today's supercomputing environment emphasizes not only speed, but the ability to help researchers tailor software to conduct their research, and meet researchers' data lifecycle needs.

Supercomputing is as important to business as it is to scientific researchers. In a white paper titled "Global Leadership Through Modeling and Simulation," the U.S. Council on Competitiveness said "to out-compete is to out-compute." For example, Boeing used a national supercomputing center to accelerate design of the 787 and 747-8 airliners and Navistar Corp. designed technologies for better fuel efficiency in trucks.

The need for supercomputing facilities and those with specialized skills is expected to grow. According to Ossowski, the line between computer programmers and scientists is increasingly blurry. He notes that there will be an increasing need for interdisciplinary research teams, as well as for scientists who are algorithm and code developers, and for programmers who are scientists. "It represents a critical shift in how research problems are approached."

CCAST at NDSU provides high performance computing infrastructure for the university, its Research and Technology Park and their industrial partners, and engages in its own original research.

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The above story is reprinted from materials provided by North Dakota State University, via Newswise.

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