College of Engineering

Physics professor uses Sony PlayStations for black hole research

UMass Dartmouth Physics Professor Gaurav Khanna is studying the gravitational waves that are emitted from supermassive black holes. And, he's getting a little help from Sony's Playstation 3 to find the answers.

Khanna and Mr. Glen Volkema of the Physics Department built a small supercomputer using eight Sony-donated Playstation 3 gaming consoles. According to Khanna, the PS3 has unique features that make it suitable for scientific computations, namely, the Cell processor dubbed a "supercomputer-on-a-chip."

Typically, scientists rent supercomputer time by the hour for NASA or National Science Foundation (NSF) related projects. In fact, Khanna last year was awarded an NSF grant for 30,000 hours of supercomputing time on its TeraGrid computing infrastructure for this project. Commercially, each supercomputer hour on the TeraGrid systems costs one dollar.

"Just a single high-precision simulation can sometimes cost more than 5,000 hours on the TeraGrid supercomputers. For the same cost, you can build your own supercomputer using PS3s.  It works just as well, has no long wait times and can be used over and over again, indefinitely," Khanna said.

On the consoles, he's solving complex equations designed to predict the properties of the gravitational waves generated by the black holes located at the center of galaxies.  An extensive search for these waves is underway by the NSF's Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory (LIGO) as well as similar observatories in Asia and Europe.  In addition, the European Space Agency (ESA) and NASA also have a joint mission planned, the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA), for the detection of these waves.

"It's important to have an understanding of these waves, that emerge from a black hole, because it would give us very direct information about certain specific properties of such systems (such as the mass, spin, etc.), ones that are very difficult to obtain otherwise. Ultimately, it would help us gain further understanding of the astrophysics behind black holes, galaxies and the universe, in general," Khanna said.

Author: "John Hoey"
Date: 18-10-2007

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