Type Ia supernovae, i.e. stellar explosions which do not have hydrogen in their spectra, but intermediate-mass elements such as silicon, calcium, cobalt, and iron, have recently received considerable attention because it appears that they can be used as ”standard candles” to measure cosmic distances out to billions of light years away from us. Observations of type Ia supernovae seem to indicate that we are living in a universe that started to accelerate its expansion when it was about half its present age. These conclusions rest primarily on phenomenological models which, however, lack proper theoretical understanding, mainly because the explosion process, initiated by thermonuclear fusion of carbon and oxygen into heavier elements, is difficult to simulate even on supercomputers.
Here, we investigate a new way of modeling turbulent thermonuclear deflagration fronts in white dwarfs undergoing a type Ia supernova explosion. Our approach is based on a level set method which treats the front as a mathematical discontinuity and allows for full coupling between the front geometry and the flow field. New results of the method applied to the problem of type Ia supernovae are obtained. It is shown that in 2-D with high spatial resolution and a physically motivated subgrid scale model for the nuclear flames numerically “converged” results can be obtained, but for most initial conditions the stars do not explode. In contrast, simulations in 3-D do give the desired explosions and many of their properties, such as the explosion energies, lightcurves and nucleosynthesis products, are in very good agreement with observed type Ia supernovae.