Imagine being able to view microscopic aspects of a classical nova, a massive stellar explosion on the surface of a white dwarf star (about as big as Earth). That too, in a laboratory rather than from afar via a telescope. A safe way to study these events in laboratories on Earth is to investigate the exotic nuclei or "rare isotopes" that influence them.
"Astronomers observe exploding stars and astrophysicists model them on supercomputers, said Wrede, assistant professor of physics at MSU's National Superconducting Cyclotron Laboratory. Rare isotopes are like the DNA of exploding stars."
"Rare isotopes will help us to understand how stars processed some of the hydrogen and helium gas from the Big Bang into elements that make up solid planets and life," Wrede said. "Experiments at rare isotope beam facilities are beginning to provide the detailed nuclear physics information needed to understand our origins."
In a recent experiment, Wrede's team investigated stellar production of the radioactive isotope aluminum-26 present in the Milky Way. An injection of aluminum-26 into the nebula that formed the solar system could have influenced the amount of water on Earth.
Using a rare isotope beam created at NSCL, the team determined the last unknown nuclear-reaction rate affecting the production of aluminum-26 in classical novae. They concluded that up to 30 percent could be produced in novae, and the rest must be produced in other sources like supernovae.
Future research can now focus on counting the number of novae in the galaxy per year, modeling the hydrodynamics of novae and investigating the other sources in complete nuclear detail.