UI team to aid NASA in quest for understanding of black holes

BY SCOTT RAYNOR | JULY 22, 2009 7:15 AM

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More than 90 years after Albert Einstein predicted certain properties of black holes, NASA has hired a team of UI researchers to confirm them.

The UI portion of the “GEMS” project — short for gravity and extreme magnetism small explorer — is headed by UI physics/astronomy Professor Phil Kaaret, along with a team of undergraduate and graduate students.

“I was excited to learn that the work my team and I had completed would be used for scientific advancement,” said Alicia Maxwell, a 20-year-old undergraduate student researcher.

In 2007, the UI, along with 37 other research teams, sent a proposal to NASA to build a X-ray telescope to study super-massive objects in space, such as black holes and neutron stars. Six of the 37 teams were selected in 2008 to do what is called a “Phase A” study, in which NASA gives a team a sizable grant so it can refine its proposal.

Only two out of the six made it.

“I think everyone was very hopeful. They had been through a similar program study in 2003,” said Zach Prieskorn, a UI graduate research assistant on the project.

The GEMS spacecraft, with the telescope UI researchers helped develop aboard, is set to launch in 2014. If the exploration confirms part of Einstein’s theory, scientists can proceed to more unknowns, said Jean Swank, the principal investigator of NASA’s project.

“We are delighted,” Swank said. “We have a lot of work to do.”

Kaaret said the telescope measures low frequency X-rays around black holes and other super-massive objects. These X-rays are given off by particles near those objects, and researchers would be able to see their orientations change as they move closer to or away from a black hole.

This would prove the effects of super-massive objects — such as black holes — on the space-time continuum.

“Einstein predicted it will happen, but it has never been measured,” Swank said.

The extremely competitive atmosphere at NASA enhanced the excitement of being chosen to participate in the project.

“You have to work hard. Everyone gets secretive about it,” Swank said. “You work nights and weekends, and you can't do anything else, because it was so intense.”

Prieskorn said he was working at NASA’s Goddard research facility in Maryland with the other teams when he found out the project was set to launch.

Though NASA officials informed the winners first, Prieskorn said, they had to contain their excitement until later in the day, after officials informed the teams that were not selected.

That evening, the GEMS research team celebrated with champagne.

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