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The University of Leicester has been awarded funding to establish a multi-million pound national supercomputer which will make it possible to study space in unprecedented detail and provide new insights into the history of the Universe.

It will allow astronomers to address some of the most challenging problems in physics and astronomy -such as What is dark matter? How do stars form? And why do galaxies always have black holes at their centres?”

The University of Leicester has been selected as one of four sites to host national high performance computing (HPC) facilities for theoretical astrophysics and particle physics research. Funding for the new facility was announced in late 2011 by David Willetts as part of the Dept. for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) e-infrastructure budget.

The facility will be managed by IT Services at the University of Leicester in collaboration with the Department of Physics & Astronomy. The University is further supporting the project by investing in a major upgrade of its data centre to host the new facility. Hewlett-Packard was recently selected as the supplier of the new computer system which will be used to run state-of-the-art simulations.

Dr Mark Wilkinson from the Theoretical Astrophysics Group at the University of Leicester is the principal scientist for the project. He said: “This is incredibly exciting news. We will now be able to carry out the largest and most detailed simulations of planets, stars and galaxies that have ever been performed and answer questions that we could not even have asked just a few years ago.”

Dr Chris Rudge, head of the Research Computing Services team at the University of Leicester who will manage the new facility said “This is a terrific opportunity for Leicester. It confirms our reputation as a major national provider of HPC for scientific research, and it enables us to showcase our cutting-edge technological solutions that minimise the environmental impact of large-scale computing facilities.”

Once operational, the machine will be part of the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC) DiRAC facility. The DiRAC consortium, of which the Theoretical Astrophysics Group at the University of Leicester are founder members, provides HPC facilities for top UK research institutes in particle physics and astronomy. “The unique feature of DiRAC is that researchers have access to four national facilities, each of which use different computing architectures designed to attack specific science problems.”

University of Leicester astronomers are eagerly awaiting the arrival of the new facility which will be commissioned over the summer, and will immediately be put to work on some of the most challenging problems in physics and astronomy. 

Professor Andrew King, head of the Theoretical Astrophysics Group at the University of Leicester said: “Leicester has a well-established reputation at the forefront of theoretical astrophysics world-wide and this will secure our position as a major international research centre for computational astrophysics..”

The Head of the College of Science & Engineering, Professor Martin Barstow,  added: “In securing this award, the University of Leicester have once again shown that they can compete at the very top level.”

As well as providing new insights into the history of the Universe, this facility will also be used to train the next generation of young researchers in the use of the latest computer technology which is at the core of the UK knowledge economy. Professor Kevin Schurer, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research and Enterprise said: “This excellent achievement is the latest success for the University of Leicester’s policy of providing a fruitful and stimulating environment for cutting-edge research.” Director of IT Services, Mary Visser commented that “This exciting development thoroughly complements our new institutional IT Strategy which aims to ensure that our world-leading researchers have the computing infrastructure they require.”  

The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Leicester, Professor Sir Robert Burgess expressed the University’s support for the project: “I am delighted with this news, which confirms Leicester’s leading status among research-intensive Universities. It is the result of excellent work by my colleagues.”

Simulation of a galaxy-wide outflow breaking up to form stars. Figure taken from Nayakshin & Zubovas (in preparation)