Science Success Story

XSEDE-Allocated Comet Enables Findings Presented at AAS 235

Undergraduate physics students N-body simulations of galactic dynamics showcased

By Kim Bruch, San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC)

Reed College undergraduate students Beckett Cummings and Will Lum worked with Physics Professor Johnny Powell to perform N-body simulations of the gas in a barred spiral galaxy using the publicly available ChaNGa software run on SDSC's Comet supercomputer. Credit: J. Powell, B. Cummings, and W. Lum, Reed College


For more than 40 years, computer simulations have provided us with spectacular views of galaxies. To foster future research on this important aspect of astrophysics, Reed College Physics Professor Johnny Powell has been guiding two undergraduate students on the use of San Diego Supercomputer Center's (SDSC) Comet supercomputer to create such simulations.

Beckett Cummings and Will Lum, both undergraduate students at Reed, had their simulations presented at the 235 Meeting of the American Astronomical Society earlier this month. Powell first instructed Cummings and Lum on the use of ChaNGa, which is a publicly available N-body simulation code developed at the University of Washington in collaboration with the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Because their ChaNGa simulations required parallel computation on hundreds of processors, they have used Comet in conjunction with an allocation from the National Science Foundation's Extreme Science and Engineering Discovery Environment (XSEDE).

"A Comet allocation starting in 2016 allowed us to complete our undergraduate student project that shows simulations starting from gas, not stars, which is more typical of these kinds of models," Powell said. "In particular, SDSC's Mahidhar Tatineni and Marty Kandes of the High-Performance Computing User Services Group tirelessly supplied the highest quality of mentoring for three years."

The physics of galactic dynamics and evolution, especially that of galactic bars that form in disk galaxies, has become of great interest to many astrophysicists over the past few years. Mainly sparked by the mission of Gaia, a European Space Agency project recently created to provide a three-dimensional map of the Milky Way, Powell's main goal with the AAS 235 project was to provide guidance on computational astrophysics to younger minds entering the field.

"It's my hope that a neophyte entering the field will find our road map and references helpful for their own endeavors," Powell said. "When I received my first XSEDE allocation, I knew virtually nothing about supercomputers and only a rudimentary amount about the LINUX command line and file structure."

"It was crucial that XSEDE made it very straight-forward to obtain a start-up allocation and it's genius that Tom Quinn, astronomy professor at the University of Washington, suggested this resource to me," Powell continued. "Further, SDSC's Mahidhar Tatineni and Marty Kandes, were very patient mentoring us for three years, and I could not have provided this experience for my students or myself without the help of XSEDE's allocations."

Projects such as this one enable undergraduate students to use Comet and other XSEDE resources. SDSC Director Michael Norman, also an astrophysicist, was eager to review the work of Cummings and Lum.

"It's so important that the first research experience is a positive one and this success shows how an advanced computing resource, combined with sophisticated software, can provide an efficient and rewarding on-ramp to next-generation researchers," Norman said. "I couldn't be more pleased."


At A Glance

  • Reed College Physics Professor Johnny Powell used an XSEDE allocation to work with undergraduate students Beckett Cummings and Will Lum on creating simulations using SDSC's Comet supercomputer.
  • The simulations were presented at the 235 Meeting of the American Astronomical Society.
  • The XSEDE-funded project provided an introduction to computational astrophysics focused on the use of ChaNGa.