Computational science and data visualization take the spotlight in new Solar Superstorms documentary

06.29.15 -

A 24-minute, high-resolution science documentary about the dynamics of the Sun that features data-driven visualizations produced by the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will debut June 30 at the Louisiana Art & Science Museum in Baton Rouge before rolling out to more than a dozen planetariums and science centers around the world.

"Solar Superstorms” was produced as part of a project called CADENS (Centrality of Advanced Digitally Enabled Science). Supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation, CADENS spotlights the new knowledge produced thanks to the massive computing and data analysis capabilities now available to scientists, engineers, and scholars. In addition to NCSA's Advanced Visualization Laboratory (AVL), led by Donna Cox, the CADENS team includes Spitz Creative Media, Thomas Lucas Productions, and the leaders of the NSF-supported Blue Waters and XSEDE projects, which enable thousands of people across the country to carry out computational and data-driven research.

"The 'Solar Superstorms' dome show is a direct result of scientific research whose advance is dependent on extremely powerful computer simulation and visualization," said Rudolf Eigenmann, a program director at the National Science Foundation. "The resulting representations of the high-resolution, complex numeric simulations convey the beauty, the power and the human relevance of solar storms."

Narrated by acclaimed actor Benedict Cumberbatch, "Solar Superstorms," asks the question, "What can cause our normally benign sun to erupt in such fury that it can threaten the world's power and technological infrastructure?" To answer that question, this innovative show takes audiences into the inner workings of our star. It follows the path of hot magnetized gas from deep inside the Sun, through its tangled journey through the Sun's churning outer layers, and on to explosive magnetic eruptions so powerful they can affect the Earth.

To tell this story, AVL visualized data from researchers across the country who use digital tools to understand solar phenomena. For example, Homa Karimabadi, Mahidhar Tatineni and Vadim Roytershteyn of the University of California, San Diego, used NCSA's Blue Waters supercomputer to simulate a solar wind interacting with Earth's magnetic field during a powerful solar storm. Data from the team's numerical simulations were visualized by AVL, creating a dramatic view of the resulting turbulent front. Such large disturbances can result in loss of communication satellites and blackouts.

Calculating the evolution of the sun's magnetism is too complex for any single computational simulation, so the show's animations combine four simulations by different groups of scientists, which span from the deep body of the sun to the solar corona.

In the outer 30 percent or so of a star like the Sun, heat is transported outward by convection. The convective circulation carries along any magnetism present in the gas, and can stretch, twist and strengthen the magnetic field—a solar dynamo. A simulation conducted by Mark Miesch of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and Nick Nelson, previously at NCAR and now at Los Alamos National Laboratory, examined this magnetized convection deep in the body of a rotating sunlike star, where the rotation organizes the slow circulation into large-scale structures. Their simulations were conducted at the Laboratory for Computational Dynamics, University of Colorado, Boulder and on Pleiades, NASA Advanced Supercomputing Division.

Robert Stein, Michigan State University, used Pleiades to simulate the solar dynamo in the rapidly circulating gas in the outermost 2 percent of the sun. It is from this layer that bundles of magnetic flux can emerge from the Sun's surface, being visible as sunspots, and can drive the solar flares and coronal mass ejections that produce the dangerous storms in Earth’s space weather. Pat Moran, NASA Ames, calculated magnetic field lines from Stein's simulations, which AVL visualized.

Matthias Rempel, NCAR, used the Kraken system at the National Institute for Computational sciences to simulate a patch of the Sun's surface covered with "granulation"—the continent-sized convection cells carrying heat to the surface—and following in detail the formation of sunspots.

Yuhong Fan, NCAR, used NCAR's Yellowstone supercomputer and the Discover supercomputer at NASA's Center for Climate Simulation to simulate the region in the solar corona—above the Sun's surface—as magnetic fields anchored in the body of the sun become increasingly strained and then suddenly release stored energy as the field reconnects, launching first one and then a second coronal mass ejection into space.

John Wise, Georgia Tech, used Blue Waters to simulate the early universe (from ~20 million to 500 million years after the Big Bang), showing the formation of the first generations of stars as their light ionizes much of the space around them. For the visualizations in the documentary, three features were targeted: the dense filaments along which stars form; the large regions of gas that become ionized and heated as new stars begin emitting lots of ultraviolet light, and later cool off after those stars' lives end; and the heavier elements mixed into the gas after those dying stars explode as supernovae, forming small bubbles of high "metallicity density." A second supernova simulation examines the life and death of a single first-generation star, looking in detail at the processes that mixes the heavy elements into their environment.

"Solar Superstorms" was produced in association with Fiske Planetarium at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and was made possible with support from the National Science Foundation, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and the Pennsylvania Film Office.

After its June 30 North American premiere, "Solar Superstorms" will open July 4 at Planétarium Gallilée at Montpellier Méditerranée Métropole in France. It will then roll out to more than a dozen planetariums and science centers around the world, including Planetarium Hamburg (Germany), the State Museum of Pennsylvania (Harrisburg), Tellus Science Museum (Cartersville, Georgia), and the Eugenides Planetarium (Athens).

"We are very impressed with this new film," said Cyril Ruiz of Planétarium Gallilée. "The imagery is of great quality, and the narration is succinct, allowing the audience plenty of room to contemplate the images in this highly immersive medium."

In addition to "Solar Superstorms," CADENS will produce two more ultra-high-resolution digital documentaries for giant screen fulldome theaters and nine high-definition documentaries for online distribution via YouTube, Hulu, and other outlets. For more information, visit

CADENS is supported in part by the National Science Foundation through award ACI-1445176.

About "Solar Superstorms"

"Solar Superstorms" is available in 4K 2D, with 5.1 or stereo soundtrack and distributed by Spitz Creative Media and Evans & Sutherland. More info/trailer at and

About NCSA's Advanced Visualization Laboratory

The Advanced Visualization Laboratory's (AVL) mission is to communicate science, inspiring audiences to learn about scientific concepts through capturing the thrill of scientific discovery and wonder of complex systems. Working in close collaboration with domain scientists, AVL creates high-resolution, cinematic, data-driven scientific visualizations. The lab is part of the University of Illinois's National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA), which is dedicated to providing powerful computers and expert support to help thousands of scientists and engineers across the country improve our world. Visit

About Thomas Lucas Productions

Thomas Lucas Productions, Inc. is a film editing and production company based in Armonk, New York. With productions that range from the vastness of space,to the depths of the ocean, to the center of volcanoes in amazing resolution, TLP is dedicated to making documentaries of the very highest quality. Visit

About Spitz Creative Media

Spitz Creative Media partnerships have resulted in some of the most successful fulldome films in circulation, including "Dynamic Earth," "Supervolcanoes," and "The Zula Patrol," now screening in hundreds of planetariums. The extensive Spitz fulldome content library also features such premium titles as the Denver Museum of Nature & Science production "Black Holes: The Other Side of Infinity," seen by millions worldwide. Spitz is headquartered in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania USA, and is a wholly owned subsidiary of Evans & Sutherland Computer Corporation. Visit

National Science Foundation

Blue Waters is supported by the National Science Foundation through awards ACI-0725070 and ACI-1238993.

National Science Foundation

XSEDE is supported by National Science Foundation through award ACI-1053575.