Studying stars can be a tricky business as, well, they’re really not that close to us. So what if we recreated what they’re made of right here on Earth?
That’s what scientists from the University of Texas at Austin are hoping to do with a new $7 million project funded by the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration (DOE/NNSA) in the US.
Using the world’s most powerful X-ray source, the fantastic Z-machine instrument at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, they will replicate the extreme temperatures and densities of plasma found inside stars such as white dwarfs, the remnants of more massive stars that have gone supernova.
“Here, 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,” said Mike Montgomery, deputy director of the Center for Astrophysical Plasma Properties (CAPP) set up with the funds for this project, in a statement. “It is really like taking a piece from the Sun and looking at it under a microscope.”
Professor Brian Cox witnessed the Z-machine in action a few years ago
The team plan to conduct experiments over the next five years. They hope the results will enable them to better work out the masses of stars like white dwarfs, and also their ages. Observational data for these statistics at the moment can be wildly inaccurate.
The Z-machine uses huge capacitors to store electric charge and then release it instantaneously onto a focused point. Each “shot” of the machine carries more than 1,000 times the electricity of a lightning bolt, making particles collide on the vertical Z-axis. Hence, Z-machine.
The burst of energy it produces is “greater than that produced by all the power plants in the world,” according to the University of Texas at Austin. This will enable it to replicate the conditions found inside a white dwarf, at least for a brief moment.
It’s all very awesome, so we can look forward to hopefully some rather impressive results in the future. And who knows, we might just work out what makes some stars tick.
“The really amazing thing about this research is that it changes the way astronomy has been conducted in the past,” said Don Winget, the director of CAPP. “There were a lot of things we thought we understood, or knew we didn’t understand in astrophysics. By re-creating those conditions and making real measurements in the laboratory, we’re changing how we think of not only astronomy as a field, but how we think of specific astronomical objects.”