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Computer Modeling Help Scientists to Better Understand Stars

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New computer visualization technology developed by the Harvard Initiative in Innovative Computing has helped astrophysicists understand that gravity plays a larger role than previously thought in deep space's vast, star-forming molecular clouds.Thats right, they are setting their sites on the origins of the stars and planets of this universe, something that could help us to better understand not just how we got where we are, but also the nature of the universe. 

The work was led by Astronomy Professor Alyssa Goodman of Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and the Initiative in Innovative Computing (IIC), of which she was the founding director. Goodman and colleagues used the IIC technology to examine reams of astronomical data collected on a structure known as a giant molecular cloud.

How Is This Different From What We Have Now? 

Anyone who has seen a Discover channel space special, or who took 9th grade science, knows that we already have some ability to map and model th stars. After all, if we didn't we would have no star charts and we would not be able to track the position and speed of other bodies (like planets, comets, ect...)  in space. According to Dr. Goodman previous technology doesn't allow for careful consideration of the "hierarchical" structure of certain stellar bodies and would have obscured specific details in the molecular cloud, such as nested areas of varying density and a physical break from one area to another.

"There's no way of noticing this without being able to see this in 3-D," Goodman said.

Where Did This Technology Come From?

The team took advantage of tools developed by the IIC's ongoing Astronomical Medicine (A-M) project, which uses technology devised for medical imaging on astronomical research. The tools were based on  Astronomical Medicine's 3-D Slicer program, originally made to allow doctors to see slices of the human body in 3-D (in a manner similar to a CAT scan) to allow astronomers to see the sky in slices and to use those slices of images to create an accurate 3-D model of the sky. 

The most important past of this technique, the real advance, however, is a new computer algorithm — a set of instructions on how to handle data similar to a computer program or model. The algorithm, developed by Rosolowsky, outputs results in a "dendrogram," which is a treelike representation of data. From the dendrogram, researchers were able to create 3-D displays of the data that they could then rotate and examine from many different directions.

 

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