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Simulating The Sounds Of Stars
May 16, 2019

Sound may not be able to travel through the vacuum of space.

But that doesn’t stop stars from unleashing a symphony of subsonic notes as their nuclear furnaces power complex vibrations. Telescopes can spot these vibrations as fluctuations in the brightness or temperature on the surface of a star.

Understand these vibrations, and we can learn more about the inner structure of the star that is otherwise hidden from view.

“A cello sounds like a cello because of its size and shape,” says Jacqueline Goldstein, a graduate student in the University of Wisconsin-Madison astronomy department. “The vibrations of stars also depend on their size and structure.”

In her work, Goldstein studies the connection between stellar structure and vibrations by developing software that simulates diverse stars and their frequencies. As she compares her simulations to real stars, Goldstein can refine her model and improve how astrophysicists like her peer under the surface of stars by surveying their subtle sounds.

According to information, with frequencies repeating on the order of minutes to days, you’d have to speed up stellar vibrations by a thousand or a million times to bring them within the range of human hearing. These reverberations might most accurately be called starquakes after their seismic cousins on Earth. The field of study is called astroseismology.

As stars fuse hydrogen into heavier elements in their cores, hot plasma gas vibrates and causes stars to flicker. These fluctuations can tell researchers about a star’s structure and how it will change as the star ages. Goldstein studies stars that are larger than our own sun.

“Those are the ones that explode and make black holes and neutron stars and all the heavy elements in the universe that form planets and, essentially, new life,” says Goldstein. “We want to understand how they work and how they affect the evolution of the universe. So these really big questions.”

Working with astronomy professors Rich Townsend and Ellen Zweibel, Goldstein developed a program called GYRE that plugs into the star-simulating program MESA. Using this software, Goldstein constructs models of various kinds of stars to see what their vibrations might look like to astronomers. Then she checks how closely simulation and reality match.

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