What happens when high velocity (400 km/s) solar winds meet the magnetic field of the planet Mercury? Jan Paral could tell you, but he'd much rather show you.
Following nearly four years of writing and fixing code, harnessing massive computational power, and integrating advanced data visualization software, Paral has been able to share this astronomical phenomenon with rest of the world. The University of Alberta doctoral student, with the help of supervisor and University of Alberta Physics Professor Robert Rankin, combined satellite data with observations from MESSENGER, NASA's spacecraft orbiting Mercury, to create a one-of-a-kind simulation of the interaction between solar winds and the planet's magnetic field.
"One of my bigger simulations needs more than three billion particles pushed step by step, followed in space and time, to get the kind of result you see on the animation," Paral said. "You need an enormous amount of resources to do that, for several days."
Paral spent time at IBM's T.J. Watson Labs in New York optimizing and debugging his code, and was given access to IBM's BlueGene supercomputer for a majority of these computationally complex runs. Paral also used WestGrid's Jasper and Lattice clusters for some of the later runs. Chris Want, a member of WestGrid's Visualization Team and a scientific visualization programmer with the University of Alberta's Academic Information & Communications Technology division, assisted with the visualization component, using WestGrid computing resources to render some of the final animations. To view the animation, click here.
Paral's animation and research was recently featured on the cover of Science Contours, the University of Alberta's Faculty of Science alumni magazine.