Scientists can now examine exploding stars under a microscope

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Feb 24, 2017

Seeing what happens during a nova or supernova up close would probably be one of those situations you wouldn’t get out of alive (unless you were on Doctor Who). While no human would stand a chance of surviving such an extreme explosion of gas and fire, scientists have apparently found a way to study these conflagrations of the cosmos without getting burned — under a microscope.

Christopher Wrede, assistant professor of physics at MSU’s National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory, has been leading extraordinary and unexpected research on rare isotopes released by these cosmic phenomena, some of which only existed for a nanosecond after the Big Bang and then burned out in the chaos.

"Astronomers observe exploding stars and astrophysicists model them on supercomputers," said Wrede, who recently presented his team's findings in his presentation Rare Isotopes: The DNA of Stellar Explosions at the American Association for the Advancement of Science National Meeting. "At NSCL and, in the future at the Facility for Rare Isotope Beams (FRIB), we're able to measure the nuclear properties that drive stellar explosions and synthesize the chemical elements — essential input for the models. Rare isotopes are like the DNA of exploding stars."

Understanding something as small as star "genetics" on a subatomic level is actually pretty huge. The spectacular light shows put on by novae and supernovae aren't just fuel for a future sci-fi box office hit (though they inevitably end up sparking Hollywood imaginations). Earthly life — and yes, that includes you — has epic star-'splosions to thank for introducing chemical elements that ended up as the stuff of most life forms on this planet. Atoms from an antediluvian supernova are probably floating around somewhere in your body.

The cyclotron stopper at MSU’s nuclear accelerator facility-in-progress, FRIB.  

"Rare isotopes will help us to understand how stars processed some of the hydrogen and helium gas from the Big Bang into elements that make up solid planets and life," Wrede explained. "Experiments at rare isotope beam facilities are beginning to provide the detailed nuclear physics information needed to understand our origins."

It is only now that nuclear physicists have developed sophisticated enough equipment to start bringing rare isotopes from billions of years ago to light. Such isotopes involved in nuclear collisions generate energy and influence how the chemical elements released in these explosions will synthesize. Those same isotopes that disappeared after the universe was born can actually be recreated at NCSL. Using rare isotope beams, Wrede's team was able to perform a simulation of the chemical reaction that is thought to have influenced the amount of water on Earth.

Exploding stars will illuminate even more than the events that led to the formation of the universe. Nuclear reactions that influence astral explosions will not only open the doors to understanding more about mysterious phenomena such as dark energy but also ignite scientific advancements in more practical areas from medicine to homeland security. Simulating rare isotope reactions can apply this branch of physics to improving medical diagnostic and treatment procedures, increasing the safety factor of nuclear power, investigating if there is any illicit nuclear material being transported from overseas and possibly obliterating nuclear waste.

Watch for FRIB to trigger explosive discoveries in the world of physics and astrophysics when the project reaches completion in 2022.

(via Science Daily)