Posted in | Quantum Physics

MSU Researcher Awarded Funding to Explore Fundamental Questions About Gravity and the Universe

A Montana State University gravitational physicist has received funding for a research project that aims to answer fundamental questions about the universe.

MSU Associate Professor Nicolas Yunes has received $750,000 from NASA's EPSCoR for his project that aims to answer fundamental questions about the universe. (Credit Montana State University)

NASA awarded $750,000 to Nicolas Yunes for his project “Exploring Extreme Gravity: Neutron Stars, Black Holes and Gravitational Waves.” Yunes is a founding member of the MSU eXtreme Gravity Institute, known as XGI, and an associate professor in the Department of Physics in MSU’s College of Letters and Science. The award, which covers a three-year period, came from NASA’s Established Program to Simulate Competitive Research, or EPSCoR.

Yunes’ project is one of 22 selected to receive EPSCoR grants for research and technology development in areas critical to NASA’s mission and one of 13 to receive the top award of $750,000, according to the agency.

"This is very exciting,” Yunes said. “This grant will allow us to explore fundamental questions about gravity and our universe.”

Yunes said the award will also allow him to grow his research group within the eXtreme Gravity Institute.

"The institute has really become a hub for this kind of education and research in the Mountain West,” Yunes said. “As a result, we're attracting many great students, researchers and faculty to study here in Montana, and this NASA funding is indispensable to our growth and mission."

The project will focus on improving and developing tools to extract as much astrophysics information as possible from X-ray data obtained with NASA’S Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer, known as NICER, a payload installed in June aboard the International Space Station that will provide high-precision measurements of neutron stars. Neutron stars are objects that contain ultra-dense matter at the threshold of collapse into black holes, according to NASA.

Researchers in Yunes’ group will work to create a framework to test Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity using X-ray data from NICER, as well as gravitational wave data gathered by the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna, or LISA, a gravitational wave observatory in space.

“This will allow for consistency checks of Einstein’s theory and the search for modified gravity anomalies with neutron stars and black holes,” Yunes said.

The researchers will also learn more about nuclear physics and general relativity by combining NICER X-ray data with information about gamma rays gained from NASA telescopes, as well as gravitational wave data gleaned from gravitational wave detectors, such as the advanced Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory, or advanced LIGO.

Yunes said his project is directly related to NASA’s strategic mission to better understand the universe through observation and its mission of discovery and knowledge.

“The region of the universe where gravity is unbearably strong and dynamically changing – the extreme gravity universe – is one of the last unturned stones,” he said. “This is in part because extreme gravity objects, like neutron stars and black holes, are difficult to resolve due to their size and distance from Earth.

“NASA’s investments in neutron star astrophysics and in space-borne gravitational wave astrophysics are aimed at resolving such objects and, for the first time, exploring the extreme gravity universe in detail. We want to aid in this endeavor by developing the tools and the understanding needed to extract the most information from the data.”

MSU’s eXtreme Gravity Institute was created to further the understanding of astrophysics and fundamental physics through extreme gravity phenomena, including black holes and neutron stars. XGI researchers have contributed to the first detection of gravitational waves, have published research about a new era of discovery in gravitational physics and have won prestigious awards, including a Breakthrough Prize, the General Relativity and Gravitation Young Scientist Prize, and a  L’Oréal USA For Women in Science fellowship, among other honors.

Project co-investigators include XGI astrophysicist Bennett Link and gravitational physicist Neil Cornish, both professors in MSU’s Department of Physics, as well as Holly Truitt, director of University of Montana’s Broader Impacts Group.

In addition to Yunes’ research team, another MSU research team has received EPSCoR funding for 2017.

Brock LaMeres, associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering in MSU’s College of Engineering, has received $100,000 for his ongoing project to develop a radiation-tolerant computer technology for use in outer space. The funding will be used to launch a satellite containing the computer prototype from the International Space Station.

That NASA selected to fund the proposals shows that MSU researchers are pursuing novel work that benefits the agency, said Angela Des Jardins, director of Montana NASA EPSCoR and the Montana Space Grant Consortium.

“NASA EPSCoR opportunities bring our capabilities to NASA's attention,” Des Jardins said. “As a result, not only are we providing NASA with strategic expertise in key missions but we are also creating valuable research infrastructure here at home."


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