UT Austin Astronomers Are Recreating the Cosmos on Earth

It’s a seemingly average day in Albuquerque, New Mexico. The sun is blazing, the mountains loom in the distance, and the people in the rows of neighborhoods go about their daily business. But just roughly 5 miles away, on the edge of town, something cosmic is taking place in those desert sands.

Within the confines of the Sandia National Laboratories, a sprawling campus that has been around for more than 60 years, a group of researchers peer through a window. They’re looking at a 108-by-23-foot pool filled with oil, water, and metal wires that buzzes with energy, waiting to do its job. At a researcher’s command, the machine begins to raggedly release shots of electricity toward a central target no larger than a spool of thread. A bright light flashes, a loud bang rings out, and the floor moves.

If anyone was looking at the facility from up above, they’d see a seismic wave stir up rings of dust throughout the surrounding desert. With this release of energy—greater than that of all the world’s power plants combined—elements of the cosmos make an appearance on Earth for just a moment. With each shot, which carries more than 1,000 times the electricity of a lightning bolt and is 20,000 times faster, the researchers have created plasma that makes up the stuff of black holes, white dwarfs, and the sun. Though this takes place nearly once a day, five times a week, for the researchers at Sandia, it’s always something to awe at.

“It’s a physically impressive thing,” says UT astronomy professor Don Winget, who has been teaching at the university for 37 years. “If you’re making a science fiction movie, this machine is what you’d expect to see.”

The device is called the Z Pulsed Power Facility, more casually referred to as the Z-machine. Originally constructed in the early ’70s, it is the largest high frequency electromagnetic wave generator in the world, used to test materials in conditions of extreme temperature and pressure. Now, it serves as the key component to the new Center for Astrophysical Plasma Properties, which aims to advance astronomy through experimental science. Led by Winget, who was recently named CAPP’s director, the research group is made up of scientists from around the country.

In April, the Department of Energy’s National Nuclear Security Administration granted UT Austin a $7 million grant to be distributed to CAPP over the course of five years, allowing researchers and graduate students to conduct “at-parameter” experiments. This means scientists can run experiments conducted under the same extreme temperatures and densities found inside stars, no longer forcing researchers to scale their findings by many orders of magnitude, helping to eliminate discrepancies. Quite literally, they are creating star stuff.

“We’re actually reproducing the astronomically observed,” Winget says. “It’s exciting because we’re breaking new ground. Astronomy has always been thought of as an observational science—this work makes it an experimental science.”

Since 2008, Winget, UT clinical researcher of astronomy and CAPP deputy director Mike Montgomery, BS ’88, MA ’94, PhD ’98, and the rest of their team have been conducting this type of research at the Sandia labs. It began when President Barack Obama implemented an initiative that national labs, like Sandia, the Los Alamos National Lab in New Mexico, and the Lawrence Livermore National Lab in California, would spend 10 to 15 percent of their research time doing fundamental research.

Each “shot,” or X-ray, the Z-machine produces costs about a quarter of a million dollars. Since its original construction, the Z-machine has been used for research on weapons, fusion, and lasers. Every X-ray produces several experiments that can be examined by each CAPP researcher. As Winget and Montgomery study white dwarfs, determining the age of galaxies, others are looking at the way matter collides together before spiraling into a supermassive black hole.

“It’s like we’re camping out at the same time,” Montgomery says. “But instead of marshmallows, it’s plasmas.”

Aside from funding CAPP’s experiments, the DOE grant also gives the program the ability to support four graduate students and two post-doctoral researchers—a development that Winget and Montgomery are highly grateful for. “You want your students to be better than you are and give them opportunities that you didn’t have,” Winget says. “And this center is one of those. Hopefully they’ll be better than we are and lead the next generation of scientists.”

Montgomery says it can be difficult to convince people of the importance of fundamental research like CAPP’s. “But it can be surprising how fundamental theories aren’t just abstract ideas sitting out in the distance,” he says, noting how quantum mechanics led to the invention of cell phones. “They profoundly affect every aspect.” However you look at it, CAPP’s research—what Winget says is not yet a “mature” science—has the potential to be revolutionary.

“Revolutions in science happen when theory and experiment catch up,” Montgomery says. He and Winget say they are as excited as ever to continue exploring the world of physics and astronomy, working away to understand the universe. “It’s as Einstein said, ‘The eternal mystery of the world is its comprehensibility. The fact that it is comprehensible is a miracle.’”

Courtesy of Sandia National Laboratories.


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