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Wow! Astronomers Explode a Virtual Star

Jeanna Bryner
Staff Writer
SPACE.comThu Mar 22, 5:30 PM ET

For years astronomers have tried in vain to blow up an Earth-size star using strings of computer code. Finally, mission accomplished. And the resulting 3-D simulation has revealed the step-by-step process that fuels such an explosion.

Dubbed white dwarfs, stars about the size of Earth and weighing as much as the Sun end their lives with quite a show. When their core furnace begins to burn out, white dwarfs explode in so-called type-1a supernovas that astronomers say could be responsible for producing most of the iron in the universe.

Until now, a peek beneath the hood of such a white-dwarf explosion has been tricky.

Prior attempts to produce the simulated explosion required scientists manually tell the computer model to detonate the star, which meant the model was not quite right or it would have generated its own cataclysm. With more tweaking of models, University of Chicago scientists generated natural detonations of white dwarf stars in simplified, two-dimensional simulations.

"There were claims made that it wouldn't work in 3-D," said Don Lamb, director of the University of Chicago's Center for Astrophysical Thermonuclear Flashes. With some extreme computing, the team produced a 3-D detonation.

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