by February 6, 2003 0 comments

If space has always been an enigma for mankind, then the moon has always served as the first post for any attempt at understanding or exploring deeper space.

All ventures into outer space, ranging from exploratory fly-bys to manned flights, have first been tried out on the moon. Like in most other areas, space research is also moving into large-scale simulations using powerful computers. In fact, given the high cost, and often the impracticability of conducting live experiments, space research had moved into computer-based simulation long before most other streams. 

Everything from flight paths of future rockets to the theories on the origin of the universe and its evolution are today computer simulated. 

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Satellite Tracking
Today there are more than 5,000 satellites in outer space. These are kept track of by telemetry, tracking and control systems.
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A satellite launcher like the PSLV has thousands of subsystems that have to function properly for a launch to be successful.
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There is a lot of sky and stars software for hobbyists out there. Zoom in on it and have a starry-ride
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Knowledge gained from space research can be put to constructive or destructive use

Consider the case of the magnetic field around a planet. Like with everything else in space research, let us take the moon as our example. The moon’s magnetic filed is very feeble when compared to that of the earth. Also, unlike on the earth, it varies widely from point to point. This much is known from the measurements taken by spacecraft that flew by or landed on the moon. Now, why is this so? The obvious conclusion is that the moon does not have a fluid core like what the earth has, but has localized ‘magnetic sources’. 

What, during the course of the moon’s evolution, could have caused this? This is where computer simulation can provide an answer. And an answer has been recently found.

Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have modeled “a blanket of dense material that would briefly insulate, and even heat the lunar core, before bobbing to the surface to allow a brief period of rapid heat flux and core convection” (see red and yellow graphic).

Dave Stegman, researcher on the project, described to PCQuest the computing environment used in solving the problem.

“The calculations were run on a Cray T3-E 1200 located at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD which was taken offline at the end of last year. We performed the final calculations last spring on 128 processors of the Cray. We were running cases of about 20 GFlops for 10 hours each. We ran about 10 cases for our final results.”

“The software is our own (written in Fortran) which uses MPI and has been developed over the past 15 years, primarily by John Baumgardner at Los Alamos National Laboratory. It is portable and has run on every operating system. We are currently running it on Beowulf clusters running Redhat Linux and also on the Earth Simulator in Japan, which uses

The machine at NASA Goddard ran a flavor of Unix. The software was developed for (and is currently used for) modeling the earth’s interior, but has also been applied to Mars and the moon.”

One of the basic tenets of space research is that projects could take many, many years to reach completion. About this specific problem, Stegman says, “the problem was first looked at 15 years ago by Baumgardner. Recent technical advancements allowed us to look at this problem again, beginning in mid-2000. The actual time spent working on the project was about 2 years.”

Where does it go from here? “We are thinking about the evolutions of Mars and the earth, using what we’ve learned about the moon. Fortunately, we now have access to even faster computers, which we’ll need in order to study these larger planets.”

Like they say in Star Trek, space exploration is about boldly going where no man has gone before. And, it takes a computer to take you there.

Krishna Kumar

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