The ‘Barbenheimer Star’
Astronomy’s new blockbuster was announced in New Orleans during the 2024 American Astronomical Society meeting.
“We’ve never seen anything like this,” says Alex Ji of the University of Chicago and SDSS, the lead author of the study. “Whatever happened back then, it must have been amazing. We nicknamed it the ‘Barbenheimer Star’ for its spectacular nucleosynthesis.”
Ji and colleagues didn’t see the Barbenheimer Star directly. Instead, they followed the trail back in time using a process called “stellar archaeology.” Just as archaeologists use evidence found in the present to reconstruct the past, astronomers use evidence found in today’s stars to reconstruct conditions in the ancient universe. Today’s stars are like chemical time capsules—they preserve what a piece of the universe was like when the star was born.
“As we continue to map the sky, obtaining millions of spectra across the galaxy and extra-galactic black holes, astronomers are making great strides in adding to our understanding of how objects in the universe evolve,” says Joel Brownstein, research associate professor in the University of Utah’s Department of Physics & Astronomy and co-author of the study.
Brownstein is the head of data for SDSS and runs the Science Archive Server (SAS), which is hosted by the U’s Center for High Performance Computing. The SAS stores data transferred to Utah from the survey’s telescopes at Apache Point Observatory in North America and Las Campanas Observatory in South America. To manage the massive data flow, Brownstein led the effort to manage the pipelines that run on the SAS, which perform the scientific data reductions for shepherding the raw data from the telescopes into usable information, known as spectra, for thousands of SDSS members to access and analyze.
“It’s like making a daily feast,” Brownstein says. “Only a few people might make the meal’s courses, but everyone sits down to dinner. The pipelines are cooked by a few people, but millions of individual spectra and their associated parameters are consumed by thousands of people in the collaboration.”