by Heather Mackey

The sun – which most of us take for granted – is a “living astrophysical object” with a tumultuous life of its own. Its mysterious flares and filaments and the forces that govern its magnetic fields are the focus of research for NASA’s newly formed Solar Dynamics Observatory and the subject of an afternoon Wednesday GPU Technology Conference session, “Using GPUs to Track Changes in the Sun.”

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Astrophysicist Mark Cheung and software engineer Ralph Seguin, both of Lockheed Martin Solar & Astrophysics Laboratory, presented some of the latest research into solar dynamics. While brilliant simulations of sun spots and colorized movies of solar events played behind them, Cheung and Seguin discussed the ways that GPUs are accelerating the computationally intensive work in this field, including:

  • Inversion of Stokes profiles to measure the sun’s magnetic field
  • Synthetic images from numerical magnetohydrodynamic simulations
  • Tracking plasma flows

Summarizing the work of Brian Harker-Lundberg of the National Solar Observatory in Tucson, Ariz., Cheung explained how GPUs have resulted in acceleration of roughly 30x in work that measures the sun’s magnetic field. Seguin, who displayed a “virtual tour of the sun,” told of how GPUs help process the massive amounts of data received at the Lockheed Martin lab – roughly 6TB a day. And in one of the session highlights, Seguin treated session members to film of a dramatic solar filament that formed on the surface of the sun in the wee hours of the morning today.

Study of the sun has very real implications for everyday life here on Earth. Solar events can kill satellites and affect air travel. In 1989, 6 million people lost power for a couple weeks when a coronal mass ejection – or solar storm – took out a power grid, disrupting power across Quebec. Right now, the science is focused on measuring and attempting to understand solar weather – we’re not yet at the point of making solar weather predictions, but that’s definitely a future goal of the science.

Even though it was one of the final sessions of the day, about half the audience stayed behind for extended discussion and Q&A – and to keep watching the astounding movies of the sun playing onscreen.