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A New Star in Physics
A New Star in Physics

DETECTING THE INVISIBLE- FSU physicist Ingo Wiedenhöver holds a key piece of the physics department's new instrument, called RESOLUT, which is designed to look for some of the most fleeting particles that exist in the universe.

When a certain kind of star explodes, it does so with such violent energy that it makes the blast of a nuclear bomb look like a dull, ephemeral speck. It's such a spectacular event unimaginable to most people on Earth that it's no wonder the explosion creates some of the most fleeting particles in the universe, particles that don't exist on this planet—at least not naturally. They are created in a few labs around the world, including one in an FSU basement.

With the completion this spring of an ambitious, five-year project, Florida State physicists will be able to study what happens when these passing particles react with other tiny particles, such as protons, as they are theorized to do in star matter. These experiments are designed to give scientists new insight into the life cycle of stars and of the universe.

The project called RESOLUT, short for Resonator Solenoid with Upscale Transmission, is the latest addition to the existing particle accelerator that nuclear physicists built here in the 1970s and added to in the '80s.

The RESOLUT system, said lead physicist Ingo Wiedenhöver, will be able to explore new directions in nuclear physics and astrophysics like no other instrument, he said. The team ran its first experiments in May and June, and are already obtaining surprising results.

Essentially, they charged the accelerator, which is partly housed in an enormous pill-shaped steel chamber, with enough energy to match the voltage of a typical thundercloud (9 million volts) and hurtled particles of magnesium ions, to zoom from zero to one-tenth the speed of light in a fraction of a second.

Wiedenhöver shot the magnesium through heavy-hydrogen gas to convert the element to an unearthly form of aluminum that exists for mere seconds—normally only in exploding stars—before it totally decays. But before it had a chance to disappear, in another fraction of a second RESOLUT propelled the aluminum nuclei through a foil target and then sorted the zooming particles that spewed from the reaction. The end chamber of RESOLUT detected what particles sprang from the experiment.

“It all happens within a microsecond,” Wiedenhöver said. But the specific particles he was looking for are so rare—one in a million—he had to keep the experiment running for three weeks straight to collect enough data for meaningful results.

Only four other laboratories in the world can run similar experiments, and Wiedenhöver's lab has the advantage of being able to focus on these measurements and do them more efficiently than anybody else. Wiedenhöver said that his team may have the results to prove it as early as this fall. —C.S.