Researcher traces the origins of neutron stars

Only a handful of scientists can say their research explores the very genesis of human existence on Earth. Dan Milisavljevic, a Purdue assistant professor of physics and astronomy who studies the dramatic explosions of stars called supernovae, is among them.

“People often say we are stardust, and that’s true,” he says. “We wouldn’t be here without these explosions, which produce the raw materials that make life possible — the calcium in our bones, the iron in our blood, the oxygen we breathe.”

One of Milisavljevic’s most recent discoveries involved supernova “SN 2012au.” While most supernovae stay luminous for just months, SN 2012au remains bright six years post-explosion, indicating that some sort of energy source is powering it from the inside out.

“The fact that we can still see it today is consistent with the fact that a neutron star formed, creating a rapidly rotating magnetic field,” Milisavljevic says. “It’s the first time we’ve seen direct evidence of actual neutron star formation from a supernova.”

Seeing that evidence required use of what scientists call Extremely Large Telescopes. When the next generation of these telescopes, the Large Synoptic Survey Telescope (LSST), goes online in the early 2020s, Milisavljevic expects the pace of supernovae discovery to take a giant leap — from thousands per year to thousands per night.

Because researchers won’t be able to keep up with what Milisavljevic describes as a “fire hydrant” of supernovae discoveries, they plan to rely on amateur astronomers to help confirm and augment the data the LSST collects. Purdue will serve as a hub for coordinating these volunteers and their findings.

Milisavljevic and his team also are pioneering the use of virtual reality (VR) as a way to study supernovae remnants — the debris fields of exploded stars.

“The problem with space is that we can’t travel there, but we can bring it into a virtual environment,” he says. “Collaborative VR, where groups of us work together to study an explosion from many different angles, is similar to a live bomb squad investigation. It will be a real game-changer in our ability to determine why and how stars explode. And as citizens of the universe, it’s crucial to understand what makes our existence possible.”