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UI Grad Student Working with NASA on Gamma Ray Burst Research

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University of Iowa grad student Hannah Marlowe has been awarded a NASA fellowship, to help them learn more about how our universe works. She’s experimenting with a device that watches the skies for explosions that signify the death of a star.

Marlowe is working on a device called the gamma-ray burst polarimeter that should give scientists a better understanding of what happens at that moment.

“Gamma-ray bursts are these really bright flashes we see in the sky,” said Marlowe. “They’re actually the most energetic explosions that go on anywhere in the universe.”

The polarimeter - only about the size of a couple decks of playing cards - is resting inside a vacuum chamber for testing. But with NASA’s help, she hopes to eventually launch it into orbit, so it can watch for these bursts of energy.

“What this detector would do is it would be looking at a large field of view, and then we just wait until they go off in our field.”

Marlowe compares it to looking out your window at night, waiting for fireflies to light up.

“They only last about a few milliseconds up to a few minutes on average.”

The polarimeter will examine the particles of light that come from the explosions, and which direction they’re heading. It will then send that data back down to earth.

“And that can tell us about the geometry in the explosion, the physical processes going on, stuff like that, that we still don’t know much about right now.”

Marlowe said that’s really the point of her research: to simply know more about what’s going on billions of light years away from our planet.

“We can see them all the way out to the edge of the universe, which makes them really cool objects to study.”

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