EDMONTON (Reuters) – A University of Alberta astrophysicist is seeing stars (or at least what they look like after colliding) after helping create the first 3D computer model of the aftermath of a neutron star collision.
Rodrigo Fernández, an assistant professor in the physics department, is at the top of the world after working with a team of US scientists to write computer code that uses algorithms to model the event. A neutron star is the smallest and densest star formed when giant stars collapse.
"We have developed a code that can describe this collision of neutron stars in the most realistic way so far," Fernandez said. "It's not perfect, you can add even more, but that's the limit of what we can do nowadays."
The 3D model gives scientists like Fernandez a greater understanding of how heavy elements like gold and lead are formed in cosmic collisions.
"(The collision) produces chemical elements that are heavier than iron, such as gold and uranium, which are not the most abundant elements, but you need them to have the world as we know it," said Fernandez.
"By being able to describe this more realistically, we have a better understanding of what is happening in these environments where these elements are being made," he added.
The level of detail in the 3D model allowed Fernandez and his team to visualize, for the first time, a burst of gamma rays (a form of high-energy radiation) from two colliding neutron stars. The model depicts a black hole formed in the center surrounded by a ring in the form of a thread, which is known as an accretion disk.
The previous 2D models were insufficient to explain the phenomenon behind the star collisions because the light from the collisions was brighter than current models could predict.
The 3D model also includes electromagnetic fields in the view, which provides a more accurate and realistic picture of how light is formed in star collisions, Fernandez said.
"What we did here with the image is not a super fantasy, but this is the real representation of scientific calculus … this is our best understanding now of what the consequence of the collision should be."
Omar Mosleh is an Edmonton-based reporter who covers downtown issues, affordable housing and reconciliation. Follow him on Twitter: @OmarMosleh