Computer models that help explain how galaxies formed created
An astronomer, who depends on other astronomers who make observations of stars and galaxies through telescopes on high mountain tops, makes use of large computers for understanding how galaxies formed billions of years ago and how they continue to evolve in our contemporary universe.
Instruments like the Hubble Space Telescope peer to the farthest reaches of space, opening windows in time that reveal how galaxies looked as they took shape in a young universe.
Computer modelling then helps astronomers make sense of what they're seeing and build a better understanding of how today's galaxies first formed.
Rachel Somerville, a professor of astrophysics in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, School of Arts and Sciences, creates computer models or simulations of the physical principles that underlie galaxy formation.
Her simulations model how gases such as hydrogen and helium coalesce into stars and galaxies and how exploding stars and black holes impact their galactic environments.
Somerville is a newcomer to Rutgers, appointed in October 2011 to the George A. and Margaret M. Downsbrough Chair in Astrophysics. As a theoretical astronomer, she values the opportunities she gets to interact with observational astronomers at Rutgers and elsewhere who provide her with new data that make her models more comprehensive and robust.
"It's hard to make models that fit all the observations," Somerville said.
"I try to go the extra distance to connect what the models predict with things that we can actually observe," she added.
Astronomers cannot see any single galaxy evolve through a telescope. Modeling galaxy formation is essential to infer the evolutionary paths that different types of galaxies follow.
"We see galaxies at different points in their lifetimes and in different wavelengths," she explained, referring to images acquired with visible light, radio waves and X-rays. Models then help astronomers predict which kinds of early galaxies evolved into disks like our Milky Way while others evolved into the round balls of stars that astronomers call elliptical galaxies.
Somerville's goal at Rutgers is to build more expertise in galaxy formation theory and help the department's astronomy group pursue new areas such as the study of extrasolar planets.