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Cardiff scientists a step closer to gravitational wave detection

Wednesday 2nd November 2011

Collision of two black holes.

Collision of two black holes. Image credit: M. Thierfelder and B. Bruegmann, FSU Jena.

A consortium of researchers, led by a team at Cardiff University's School of Physics and Astronomy, has been awarded time on Europe's fastest supercomputers to simulate what may be the most violent events in the universe since the big bang: collisions of black holes.

The award of 16.7 million core hours will allow the team of researchers to use more than 1900 computer processors for one year to solve the equations of Einstein's general theory of relativity, to describe what happens when two black holes collide. The ultimate goal of the simulations is the direct observation of black-hole collisions through the gravitational-wave signals that they emit.

Gravitational waves are ripples in space and time, which were predicted by Einstein almost 100 years ago, but have not yet been directly detected. Gravitational waves are generated by accelerating masses, such as orbiting black holes, similar to the way accelerating electrical charges emit electromagnetic waves, like light, infra-red and radio waves -- with the important difference that gravitational waves are far weaker. For this reason it is electromagnetic waves that have told us everything we have learnt about the cosmos since ancient times.

According to Dr Mark Hannam from the School of Physics and Astronomy, "If we could also detect gravitational waves, that would push open a new window on the universe, and tell us about its dark side".

The research team comprises more than 20 physicists working at Cardiff, the Universities of Jena, Vienna, and the Balearic Islands, the Albert Einstein Institute in Potsdam, and the California Institute of Technology. Solving Einstein's equations on supercomputers to accurately describe black holes became possible only after a series of breakthroughs in 2005, and the mostly young researchers are excited to be part of a scientific revolution. "The detectors are pushing against the limits of current technology, and now we will help them with simulations that are at the cutting edge of computing power," says Dr Hannam. "Access to such vast computing resources is a fantastic boost for scientific research in Wales."

While supercomputing resources in Europe used to be relatively scarce, the PRACE Research Infrastructure now provides access to world-class supercomputers for European research projects, which undergo a competitive peer review process. The PRACE infrastructure currently consists of three world-class supercomputers, which can each perform about 1 Petaflop, that is a thousand billion arithmetic operations per second. The first machine in the network, the German Jugene, started operation in 2010, and it was joined in early 2011 by the French machine Curie, and the German system Hermit is about to officially start operation on November 1. Future computers in the PRACE network are planned in Germany, Italy, and Spain.

More information on the work of the Gravitational Waves group at Cardiff can be found in the research pages here.