NKU professor hopes to answer some questions of the universe with a device he's helping design
Scott Nutter is trying to solve a larger-than-life problem. The Northern Kentucky University astrophysicist is part of a team of scientists who are figuring out where the essential elements of life come from in the universe.
Nutter calls the four-year, $20 million project a high-energy physics experiment.
The TIGERISS experiment stands for “Trans-Iron Galactic Element Recorder on the International Space Station (ISS).” TIGERISS is a telescope, but not the kind that collects light. Instead, it will collect particles from outside the solar system. We say "will" because it hasn't been designed yet. Nutter's job is to simulate it.
What researchers want to know is where do elements heavier than iron on the periodic table come from? Nutter and others think heavier elements are formed from violent star mergers.
“When you have two of them that go around each other, they’ll circle in, come together, they’ll explode and (we’ll) end up with a very, very heavy material that turns into things like gold, silver, lead, uranium,” he explains. This is called a binary neutron star merger.
These are atoms essential for life.
TIGERISS is an outgrowth of the TIGER and SuperTIGER instruments that flew on high-altitude balloons reaching heights of over 20 miles. On the ISS, TIGERISS will get higher-resolution measurements and detect heavy particles that couldn't happen from a scientific balloon.
Nutter got his Ph.d. in high-altitude balloons and has traveled to Antarctica to launch these balloons, which are 40 million cubic feet in volume.
Nutter’s job on TIGERISS is to simulate the instrument. “What that means is that I create a virtual version of the instrument inside of a computer and I throw vertical cosmic rays at virtual particles and I get virtual data out of it.”
He explains that helps in two ways: one is with the initial design; and two, when installed on the International Space Station, Nutter will have simulated data he can compare with the actual data.
“I need to run thousands and thousands of particles through to get distributions of results," he says. "Then, I come into my lab and I set up and I run on several different machines versions of the program and they crank for days.”
Eventually, he wants to get NKU students involved.