Astronomers have discovered an exciting way to use the Z machine to create "star stuff" that can solve many astronomical mysteries.
Scientists hope gained knowledge will shed more light on the archaeological history of star formation in our galaxy, the nature of
dark matter, and the conditions at the center of our Sun.
The Z machine is the largest X-ray generator in the world and is designed to test materials in conditions of extreme temperature and pressure.
Operated by Sandia National Laboratories, it gathers data to aid in computer modeling of nuclear weapons. The Z machine is located at
Sandia's main site in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
What you might not have known is that the Z machine is also being used to create white dwarfs in the desert.
With help of the largest X-ray generator in the world, Astronomer Don Winget from the University of Texas at Austin, can create "star stuff" that will one
day allow scientists to solve many of the mysteries of white dwarfs, which are extremely dense stars that are the ultimate end state of most stars in
the universe, including our sun.
Astronomers will also use that knowledge to gain insight into the archaeological history of star formation in our galaxy, the nature of dark matter,
and the conditions at the center of our sun, where the density is close to that of a white dwarf.
The experiments may even help push humanity closer to the dream of nuclear fusion as a meaningful energy source.
"If we can solve this, it will rattle through whole fields of astrophysics and physics," says Winget.
The Z Machine "can produce 290 terawatts of power -- equivalent to 80 times the world's total power output."
Sandia Labs' Z machine is the largest laboratory source of x-rays in the world. For the few nanoseconds of a Z Machine test, its electrical
output equals the output of 50x the electrical generating stations of all the power plants on earth.
The Z Machine complex encompasses an area roughly the size of a major college basketball arena.
Originally created to validate nuclear weapons models, the Z Machine is also considered a "dark horse" in the race for viable fusion energy production.
After the famous "arcs and sparks" photo of Z (a photo no longer possible after its refurbishment), this is a fast-motion video of
workers completing Z's recent refurbishment.
So, in what way can the Z machine actually create white dwarfs?
When Winget first heard of the idea that he could white dwarf stuff in the lab, he didn't really take it very seriously. For decades I'd been telling students
that what I do is purely an observational science," says Winget, a professor in the Department of Astronomy and a pioneer in the study of white dwarfs.
"It's not an experimental science."
Then Winget was approached by Jim Bailey, a physicist at Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M. Bailey was working with the
facility's Z Machine, which is the largest X-ray generator in the world.
The machine was primarily used to model nuclear weapons and investigate the potential of nuclear fusion as an energy source. But Bailey and Greg Rochau,
also of Sandia, had begun to run experiments to see whether it could be used to simulate the conditions of stars.
"The environment we experience everyday on this planet is extraordinarily rare in the universe, if not unique," says Rochau, manager of imaging and
spectroscopy at Sandia. "Even though we think of these experiments as studying 'extreme' states of matter, the goal was actually to give us a
small window into what the universe considers to be quite normal."
Some of the light signatures Bailey and Rochau were generating looked familiar to Winget and his group, who quickly realized that with the
machine they could make plasmas with the same conditions as those found at the surface - the photosphere - of a white dwarf star. They could make an
actual bit of white dwarf star in the lab.
For the past few years astronomer Don Winget has been using the Z Machine, the world's largest x-ray generator, to create
white dwarf "star stuff" here on earth. When he put a photograph of the Z Machine up on the projector in his Astronomy 301 course,
it inspired fine arts student Leah Flippen to begin a painting of the same name. In this video Winget and Flippen talk about the machine, the
painting, and the interplay between science and art.
Sandia National Laboratories is considering buying the painting, to be hung right outside the actual machine.
"I stood next to the door, saw the flash, heard the boom, and felt the seismic wave," he wrote in an email, sent that day, to his colleague Ed Nather.
"Today you, and everyone else on the planet, were closer to a white dwarf photosphere than anyone has ever been … the spectrograph was 5cm away -
much better than 30-700 light years we are used to!"
For Winget it was a moment that transcended science.
"I get this feeling of awe in my life on two occasions," he says. "One is when I go to the telescope at the McDonald Observatory at night.
I feel like I'm flying a spaceship through the universe, searching for things no one has ever seen before.
The other is at the Z Machine when that shot goes off. There is no way to miss the power that is happening."
Winget admits although he and his colleagues have gained a lot of knowledge from these experiments, there are certain limits to what could be
inferred from distant observation. The density of the hydrogen plasma surface of the star, in particular, was making it hard to properly
interpret the light signatures.
"The surface of a white dwarf is on the order of 10,000 times more dense than the surface of our sun," he says. "At these densities the
whole is different than the sum of the parts."
Without a good enough understanding of the physics of that surface, says Winget, it's impossible to fully infer the conditions of the interior of the stars.
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