Though we'll never see close-up what happens at the core of a massive star collapse, scientists are doing their best to understand what happens when they do—and the results of the theoretical 3D models they create are absolutely stunning.

It's easy to understand what happens at the surface of a collapsing star—because we can see it—but scientists have to simulate what happens on the inside using their knowledge of the fundamental interactions of mass and energy. Now, Caltech researchers Philipp Mösta and Christian Ott have created new models of "a rapidly rotating star with a strong magnetic field undergoing the process of collapse and explosion." The results are stunning.


Mösta and Ott used three-dimensional simulations which required a supercomputer with 20,000 processors to churn out 500 terabytes of data. All told, even that much information only represents 200 milliseconds in time. The results reveal that when these bodies undergo core collapse, small perturbations around their axis of rotation can inhibit the process that would ordinarily lead to a supernova explosion. Ott explains:

"Even working with paper and pencil, writing down equations and discussing them with other theoretical astrophysicists, we should have known that small perturbations can trigger an instability in the stellar core. Nothing in nature is perfect. As we learn from this model, even small asymmetries can have a dramatic effect on the process of stellar collapse and the subsequent supernova explosion."

Their paper containing the research was published in Astrophysical Journal Letters. The next step? More and longer simulations, on more powerful supercomputers, of course, to why exactly the phenomenon occurs. [Astrophysical Journal Letters via Caltech]