Stuff of Stars

UT Austin will make stars right here on Earth with new multimillion-dollar grant

UT Austin will make stars right here on Earth with new grant

Perseid, meteor, Milky Way, stars, sky
This grant will help scientists recreate the stuff of stars. Photo by Brocken Inaglory/Wikipedia

For as long as human beings have been in existence, they have looked to the heavens for direction, inspiration, and light. Now, thanks to a new multimillion-dollar grant, the University of Texas at Austin will be tasked with recreating the stuff of stars right here on earth.

The $7 million grant was awarded by the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration, the university announced on April 19. The goal, says UT, is to use the money for experiments that recreate the same extreme temperatures and densities found inside stars. UT astrophysicists will conduct these experiments as part of the newly established Center for Astrophysical Plasma Properties.

The hope is by recreating the stuff of stars, it can help scientists determine the size and ages of super-dense objects known as white dwarfs. In order to recreate the surface of a white dwarf, scientists will use a Z-machine, the world's most powerful X-ray source.

“If we want to study a white dwarf whose surface is at 15,000 degrees, then we’re doing the experiment at 15,000 degrees,” says Mike Montgomery, deputy director of CAPP and clinical researcher in the Department of Astronomy. “It is really like taking a piece from the sun and looking at it under a microscope.”

Amazingly, the Z-machine does this by "convert[ing] the amount of electricity needed to power a few TV sets for the evening into a burst of energy greater than that produced by all the power plants in the world." 

Until now, astrophysicists have relied on observational science to calculate the age of stars, and thus, the universe. Because it is not an exact science, this has led to miscalculations of billions of years. 

“Now, we’re going back and asking very fundamental questions,” says Don Winget, the director of CAPP and a professor in UT's Department of Astronomy in a release. “Instead of doing calculations, we’re doing experiments and checking. We’re going to learn a lot of things we plan on learning, and we’re going to learn a lot of things that we had not planned on learning.”

Reach for the stars just took on a whole new meaning.