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In a sort of a merger between the laboratory and the stars, Michigan State has joined with two other Midwestern universities to establish a nuclear astrophysics center.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded $10 million to the University of Notre Dame, Michigan State University and the University of Chicago to establish a Physics Frontier Center for Nuclear Astrophysics.

The Joint Institute for Nuclear Astrophysics -- known as JINA -- is a collaborative effort of the three universities. The five-year NSF grant is intended to foster an interdisciplinary approach to nuclear astrophysics that will coordinate efforts between the astrophysics and nuclear physics communities, as well as those between experimenters, theorists, and astronomical observers.

The scientific goal of JINA is to study the broad range of nuclear processes in our universe that control stellar evolution, trigger supernova events, and lead to thermonuclear explosions observed as novae, x-ray- and gamma-ray bursts.

The creation of JINA comes at a time when new generations of particle accelerators are being built or proposed that will recreate stellar nuclear processes in the laboratory. This includes recently completed Coupled Cyclotron Facility at MSU's National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory, the nation's premier rare isotope user facility, and the future Rare Isotope Accelerator, the nuclear science community's highest priority for new construction.

Professor Michael Wiescher, a Notre Dame nuclear astrophysicist, will serve as JINA's first director. Research at JINA also will involve investigators from the University of California at Santa Cruz, the University of California at Santa Barbara, the University of Arizona, and Argonne National Laboratory.

Photo of Tim Beers and Hendrik Schatz

JINA MSU co-principal investigators Tim Beers (left) and Hendrik Schatz (right)

"We now have observatories in orbit that obtain detailed measurements of X-ray emission from such compact objects, but we lack the knowledge of the underlying exotic nuclear physics to effectively use these observations as unique laboratories for the behavior of matter under extreme conditions," said Hendrik Schatz, an MSU nuclear astrophysicist and head of one of the main research components of JINA.

The experimental simulation of nuclear processes at stellar conditions will be performed at accelerator facilities at the University of Notre Dame, Michigan State University, and Argonne National Laboratory. It requires the development of new experimental techniques to obtain the missing information on processes that in nature take only place at the extreme conditions of stellar explosions.

One of the mysteries JINA seeks to address is the origin of the chemical elements, in particular, heavy elements, such as gold and uranium.

"We still don't understand why there is so much gold in the universe. We know these heavy elements are the decay products of very exotic atomic nuclei, but how and where in the universe exactly these have been created still remains an open question" Schatz said.  "The experimental and theoretical studies in nuclear physics associated with JINA will provide the basis for an understanding of the detailed nuclear processes involved in the origin of the elements."

Complementing the theoretical and experimental efforts at JINA, co-investigator MSU Professor Timothy Beers is leading a survey of element production in the early Galaxy, as revealed in the spectra of ancient stars. His recent detection of radioactive elements, such as uranium and thorium, in the oldest stars in the Galaxy also provides a valuable means to obtain independent estimates of the age of the Universe. 

"High-resolution spectroscopic observations of the oldest stars in our galaxy, made with the Hubble Space Telescope and 8m-class telescopes such as the European VLT, have revealed the presence of the very first heavy elements made in the universe," Beers said. "We are using these data to infer the 'recipe of creation'." Data from the new SOAR telescope, in which MSU is a partner, will also play an important role.

The Physics Frontiers Centers program at NSF was created to support research in making transformational advances in the most promising new scientific areas. This is a way to enable major scientific advances at the intellectual frontiers of physics by providing new resources, not usually available to individual investigators or small university research groups, to advance our understanding of the universe.  As part of this grant, JINA will engage in many outreach activities aimed at making these scientific advances accessible to the public, educators and students of all levels.  For more information, see:

(Sue Nichols, W. Bauer, MSU)

Photo of JINA logo







* Hendrik Schatz
* Tim Beers

Element Creation