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Accidents and Testing Grounds

University physics research, such as the ISS-CREAM project, is empowered to dig into cosmic mysteries for answers to some of the most profound questions we ask today.

“The fundamental reason is answering questions about the universe,” says Dr. Scott Nutter. “If there are discoveries that could lead to other things, it’s usually totally accidental.”

But these accidental discoveries quite often enable significant advances in other areas. “What it’s likely to lead to is a better understanding of detection methods and electronics," he says.

"Getting equipment to survive in space is actually quite challenging, and there are still things to be learned about that.” Nutter points to the space race of our time—the rush to transport humans to Mars—as an area where accidental discoveries could be invaluable. “That’s a long time to be subject to the radiation of space.”

Research like CREAM also establishes means for other projects to be sent to the International Space Station.

“The balloon instruments are the testing ground for other things that could eventually go to space,” he says. “I’m talking with other scientists about proposing to take a balloon project they’ve launched in the past successfully and move it up to the space station. I’m excited to continue the adventure.” 

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HELIX

While CREAM is getting all the attention for its recent journey into space, it is, in fact, one of two NASA-funded projects that Dr. Scott Nutter is involved with right now. The other is HELIX.

“HELIX is well-named because it’s what we call a magnetic spectrometer,” explains Nutter. “Its goal is to measure the relative number of isotopes of beryllium in the cosmic rays.”

Measuring relative isotope decay helps scientists determine how long a cosmic ray has traveled in space. The measurement’s never been taken before.

“Beryllium particles bounce around in the galaxy’s very weak magnetic fields, kind of helixing or twisting up, and they arrive here,” he says. “We put a big magnet up in space and see how much they twist and the slight difference in mass between beryllium-9 and beryllium-10.”

Unlike its ISS-dwelling sibling, HELIX isn’t headed to space anytime soon—largely because it doesn’t yet exist.

“The project is in the design stage right now,” says Nutter. “We’re just beginning fabrication of some of the most basic aspects of it. The electronics are still being designed and tested, and we’re having prototypes come through. But the plan is for this detector to launch in about 2019 or 2020 from Antarctica, then be refurbished in a second round of fabrication with better detectors that allow us to extend our energy range and be launched again four or five years later.”

Unfortunately for Nutter, the HELIX project isn’t likely to result in another trip to Cape Canaveral. “Our mag.net is very much tied to the earth,” he says. “Super-conducting magnets require liquid helium, and that wouldn’t last very long on the space station. So it’s not one that we could launch on a rocket.”

ROCKET MAN

Astrophysicist Scott Nutter launches cosmic ray research beyond the campus lab and the edge of Earth’s atmosphere.

Scott Nutter Photo by Scott Beseler

by Rodney Wilson
Editor, NKU Magazine

On certain dates of the year, you may, upon gazing into the creeping darkness of the early evening or pre-dawn sky, see a large ball of light—star0like, but brighter—emerge from one corner of the horizon, steadily glide across the heavens for a minute or two, then wink out in completion of its overhead journey.

That ball of light, the third-brightest object in the night sky (after the moon and Venus), is the International Space Station (ISS), a habitable satellite carrying an international crew of astronauts and cosmonauts conducting a variety of experiments and research projects. The spacecraft circles the globe once every 90 minutes, 220 miles above the earth’s surface, at a speed of 17,500 mph. And, as of Aug. 14, 2017, the ISS has some NKU on it.

“It’s very cool,” says Dr. Scott Nutter, professor of physics in Northern Kentucky University’s Physics, Geology & Engineering Technology department and member of the international scientific team that developed the research instrument known as CREAM on the ISS (nicknamed ISS-CREAM). “NKU has a piece up there.”

Short for Cosmic Ray Energetics and Mass for the International Space Station, ISS-CREAM marks the culmination of decades of work for Nutter. And the process of getting CREAM into space was the realization of a lifetime interest for the NKU professor.

Nutter’s path to outer space started with undergraduate work in Georgia, then graduate studies at Indiana University, where he reveled in the characteristics of the region. “I really do like the Midwest,” he says. “It was really wonderful, lovely territory to go hiking—all the oaks and other hardwoods!”

But grad school wasn’t all dirt trails through Hoosier woods for Nutter, as his time at Indiana University also directed him to astrophysics and working with high-altitude balloons to study cosmic ray physics—the same research he does today.

“I’ve been working on balloon-borne projects for a long time, since graduate school,” says Nutter. “These balloons go, essentially, into space. Anyone who went up on one would not be able to breathe, they’d freeze to death and their blood would boil—above 99.5 percent of the atmosphere, you’re in space.”

He accepted a faculty position at Eastern New Mexico University, where he taught and conducted research for six years. And while the remoteness of the locale, coupled with the university’s smaller size, proved a challenge to the collaborative nature of his research, the experience introduced him to work that determined the course of his career.

“I was very fortunate in that a mentor—a faculty member and friend—had always been supportive to me,” he says. “I took a year off from New Mexico and spent a year with him at Pennsylvania State University as a visiting faculty member. He needed some start-up person there to help him with the project. That was in 1999, right at the beginning of the CREAM project.”

Scott Nutter

A Cosmic Misnomer

The CREAM research project is currently run by 30 people (10 faculty members, 10 post-docs and 10 graduate students) spread between the United States and Korea. The instrument collects data that, back on the ground at universities

like NKU, scientists use to work out answers to questions about cosmic rays—questions like, what are cosmic rays, anyway?

“Right now they’re believed to just be gas between the stars that’s swept up in an expanding shockwave from a supernovae explosion,” explains Nutter. “As it expands, just like you see shockwaves going through the air, this is going through gas that’s out in space.” Nutter further explains that, as the gas ac.celerates, a small fraction of its particles reach near-light speeds, becoming what we call cosmic rays.

First discovered by Austrian-American scientist Victor Hess in 1912—who, carrying electrometers, rode a balloon to a height of more than 17,000 feet during a near-total eclipse to measure rising radiation at increased altitudes—cosmic rays rain down on the earth from the solar system.

It’s also worth noting that cosmic rays aren’t rays at all: Hess named them based on a belief they were electromagnetic radiation. (He was wrong.)

“They’re just ordinary elements,” explains Nutter. “Hydrogen and helium, carbon and nitrogen, oxygen and iron—all these things that are out there waiting to become part of a new solar system. But the details of how that acceleration happens have to be teased out of the spectrum.

“They’re an important part of the energy balance of the galaxy,” he continues. “There’s as much associated with the motion of these elements at very high speeds as there is in starlight itself. When you look up at the sky and see the bright Milky Way—if your eyes could see cosmic rays, it would be just as bright.”

Collecting cosmic ray data is a matter of measuring two as-pects—charge and energy—to better understand the elements’ origins. “Charge is pretty easy,” says Nutter. “ISS-CREAM does that with very thin layers of silicon.” Measuring energy, howev.er, is slightly more complex, employing a technique known as calorimetry to determine how energy moves from one thing to another. “In particle physics, the calorimeter takes the particle that comes in and has some heavy material that the particle hits and goes ‘splat,’” he says, slapping the back of one hand into an open palm for effect. “When it goes ‘splat,’ it creates a lot of other particles. So one particle going really, really fast creates thousands of other particles going slower. We call this a shower, and we measure how big the shower is. That tells us how much energy the particle had.”

A large part of Nutter’s role in the ISS-CREAM project is running simulations on a virtual geometry of the instrument to create data sets similar to what the terrestrial team will receive from the ISS-mounted instrument. Which begs the question— why send CREAM into space at all, if the team can predict the data it’ll send back?

“We don’t actually know what the answer is, how many particles there are in particular energy or anything like that,” says Nutter. “We can just, particle by particle, look and have an average response for this kind of energy and an average response for that energy. But we don’t know how many of each kind. So the goal is to find out that, at this energy there’s that many, and at this other energy there’s this other many.”

And in order to determine answers to these questions, CREAM had to escape Earth’s surface—first into the skies above Antarctica and, finally, up in space.

Up, Up and Away

Some of the most invaluable tools astrophysicists have at their disposal are helium balloons—not the multi-color teardrops that dot the sky over children’s birthday parties, though not entirely dissimilar, either. NASA, which sponsors the CREAM project, employs large helium balloons to inexpensively carry payloads to the edge of Earth’s atmosphere for long-duration, sub-orbital flights that collect data nearly free of environmental effects. And the best place to loose one of these large balloons? Over the barren ice fields of Antarctica.

“NASA launches balloons in Antarctica because it’s out in the middle of nowhere and you don’t have to worry about a pay.load coming out of the sky if there’s some failure and dropping on a house,” says Nutter. “Also, in the upper atmosphere, winds blow either to the east or to the west depending on the time of year, and east or west in Antarctica is a tiny, tight little circle. So you send something up, then 10 or 15 days later, you’re like, ‘Oh, there it is again.’ That’s very convenient—you can bring it down and don’t have to go far to get it.”

Launching the CREAM balloons did require Nutter to travel to Antarctica three times to participate in flight preparation and instrument retrieval, which pulled him out of the classroom for extended periods of time. And he’s quick to point to NKU’s flex.ibility in allowing him to pursue his research as evidence of the university’s dedication to conducting interesting science.

“NKU, in the persons of my chairs and other administrators, has been very supportive of some of the special needs I have in this research,” he says. “It’s very hands-on, it’s experimental, and I go to some pretty far corners of the earth. When I go, I miss some classes, and I’ve had to have some people cover those.”

As far-flung as Antarctica is from his workplace in Highland Heights, Nutter found the arctic accommodations familiar. “Mc-Murdo Station is like a wee little college campus of a thousand people,” he says. “I lived in a dorm with a roommate and ate at a cafeteria. There was movie night and a tiny little gym in a Quonset hut.”

Quonset workouts aside, the business of the trip kept Nutter plenty busy for the month-plus he spent in Antarctica during each of his last two trips. He took daily bus rides out to the Ross Ice Shelf, where he worked with NASA crews specializing in balloon launches to send the project beyond Earth’s atmosphere, gathering data to make an important point.

“CREAM had to prove itself,” he says. “It had to find interesting science and show that it could work time and time again in a harsh environment. And it did that. So it was an easy sell, I think, to get it up there.”

Ground Control to Dr. Nutter

“Up there,” of course, is space—a place on the ISS where the data CREAM collects will be free of atmospheric variables. Nutter was understandably excited to see his project secure a place in orbit, but his eyes widen when he starts talking about the means by which the instrument left Earth’s surface.

“That was one of the things on my bucket list,” he says. “I really wanted to see a rocket launch. It’s just the best. So when I first learned that we were going to put this up on the space station, I said, ‘Put me in for being there.’”

Nutter traveled to Cape Canaveral, Florida, where rocket company SpaceX treated the scientist and his family like VIPs, providing snacks, a short lecture and, finally, a place on the terrace to watch CREAM rocket past the atmosphere.

“The launch itself was about three miles away,” he says. “I think we were about as close as you can get. The visual part of it was fabulous, with huge clouds coming out. There are videos, of course, but videos can’t reproduce the sound.

“It’s just this wall that hits you, and it’s more subsonic than you realize. You feel it as much, if not more, than you hear it,” he says, patting his chest. “You feel it just beating on you—thum, thum—you feel your clothes vibrating against your skin. You can feel the whole building trembling. It was really something, and I didn’t expect that.”

Lab Discoveries of a Personal Nature

If you didn’t realize NKU had a hand in experimental, NASA-funded astrophysics … well, you’re not alone. Carter Kring, NKU physics senior and one of two student workers in Nutter’s lab, never expected to work with space data at NKU.

“I had no idea these things were happening here,” says Carter. “I had always thought it was kind of a smaller school in terms of physics and sciences in general. But there are some really cool things happening here. It’s amazing that I get to be part of it.”

Carter recalls visiting Nutter two years ago to inquire about career options, and his professor suggested he apply for an open position in his lab. The advice led to a position that, in effect, answered Carter’s original question about career paths. He now has the vision and skills to pursue work in a specific field.

“I started here at NKU as a physics major,” he says. “I knew that’s where I wanted to go, but I was kind of open-ended on what part of physics I wanted to work in. Working in this lab really showed me how cool astroparticle physics and high-energy particle physics are. It’s something I’ve put a lot of thought into now, and I think it would be a very cool place to end up in.” Carter mentions SpaceX and NASA as places he’d like to land after graduation, though he’d be just as happy working in a university, like his professor. “I just want to work somewhere where I’m contributing to science.”

A Lot of Stories to Tell

Nutter knows that ISS-CREAM, still basking in the glow of a recent rocket launch, has attracted its fair share of attention. SpaceX special treatment and a slew of media interviews notwithstanding, the professor is quick to point out that his is but one project happening in a department passionate about exploring the science behind our everyday world, on a campus filled with curious minds.

“I’m just one faculty member here at NKU with a project,” he says. “I just happened to get my 15 minutes right now because we had a rocket launch, and it’s on the ISS, which is so cool. But when you get down to the nitty-gritty, there are people who do pretty neat stuff here, whether it’s on coral reefs in Belize or particle accelerators at CERN.

“There’s such a wide variety of things going on over here,” he says. “And I think there are a lot of stories to tell.”