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UI Physicists Get a Look Into Gamma Rays

IOWA CITY, Iowa (CBS2/FOX28) -- At the University of Iowa, inside of Van Allen Hall, tucked away in a metallic chamber wrapped in insulating tin foil sits a tiny polarimeter -- a detector set to measure and study gamma ray bursts.

"So, gamma ray bursts are these really bright flashes of gamma ray radiation, which is really energetic light," said graduate research assistant Hannah Marlowe.

When a burst happens, it is briefly the brightest thing in the entire universe.

"So, they're very cool, very extreme events, and they're associated with the dramatic death of massive stars, so, much, much bigger than the sun," Marlowe said.

Marlowe is a Ph.D. candidate in astronomy and physics, and she has helped move the research the detector does forward. She performed that task quite literally when she loaded the entire polarimeter into the back of a minivan and drove it across the country to the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, where the University of Iowa team collaborates with NASA scientists.

The detector measures the polarity of gamma ray bursts, basically, helping to understand the geometry and properties that create them. And that can tell us a lot of things, especially that we're very lucky.

"If one were to happen very close to us in our own galaxy and be pointed right at us, we'd probably have a mass extinction on earth," Marlowe said.

But hopefully, the detector will be able to get a lot closer than humans ever will. Through their work with Goddard, Marlowe and her colleagues hope to put the detector on a satellite and into orbit. The hope is to capture the very specific physical phenomena that don't happen our galaxy.

"We couldn't do anything like that on earth ever. So this is really a window into some very extreme environments and very extreme physics going on that we just can't replicate," Marlowe said.

"The first (thing) someone does when they look through a telescope is they look at something, and then they ask, 'What is it?' Everyone asks that question. And we're just asking the same question," said professor of astronomy and physics Phil Kaaret.
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