Jim Lattimer explores the fringes of the Milky Way, scanning the visible and invisible regions of the galaxy on the hunt for secrets locked in the core of stars.
Such eavesdropping on the cosmos by this Stony Brook University physicist and astronomer has yielded a major finding in the heart of a neutron star: the discovery of a bizarre state of matter known as a superfluid.
On Earth, superfluids created in laboratories exhibit astounding properties, such as the capacity to climb upward and escape the confines of airtight containers.
The very nature of a superfluid is the stuff of sci-fi thrillers, but superfluids are real -- and invariably confounding.
Studying neutron star
Lattimer and a team of Americans first made note of the galactic superfluid in a scientific journal last year, beating a group of Russians on the trail of the same star's contents.
Now, Lattimer is racing to further confirm his work and to probe deeper into the core of the star.
"My interest in neutron stars stems from trying to understand the state of matter in their interior," said Lattimer, who describes a neutron star as the collapsed remnant of a supernova, following the giant star's explosive demise.
To study the star, Lattimer needed sophisticated instrumentation. Studies into the far reaches of space often cannot be accomplished with terrestrial telescopes, but require, instead, instruments that detect radio frequencies or X-rays.
Lattimer used data beamed from NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory not only to make observations of the star, but to determine that it possessed a superfluid. The Chandra observatory is a roving space telescope launched by the space shuttle Columbia in 1999.
Neutron stars, Lattimer said, contain the densest known matter that can be directly observed. These stars are also associated with some of the deepest -- and mind boggling -- mysteries in the universe, defying earthbound concepts of weight and gravity.
One teaspoon of this neutron star's material weighs 6 billion tons, studies suggest. And the pressure in a star's core is so high that most of the charged particles -- electrons and protons -- merge, resulting in a star composed mostly of uncharged particles called neutrons.
Lattimer and his colleagues have been intensely studying the neutron star, Cassiopeia A, in a region of the Milky Way about 11,000 light years from Earth. A light year is equivalent to about 6 trillion miles.
How it matters
Theoretical astrophysicist Sterl Phinney of the California Institute of Technology said the discovery of a superfluid is important because this form of matter contains charged particles that are also superconductors. Superconductors perform as perfect electrical conductors, never losing energy.
Phinney noted the first superconductors were studied in Earth labs 70 years ago.
Yet, the overall importance of the Stony Brook research, Phinney said, helps inform science not only about superfluids but also neutron stars themselves.
Phinney, an expert in neutron stars, said the region of the Milky Way where Lattimer searched is the vast home of numerous cosmic phenomena: the Black Widow Pulsar, a neutron star that's consuming its companion star, a brown dwarf; white dwarfs, red giants and at the very center, a super-massive X-ray-emitting black hole.
"Neutron stars are stars with a mass that is greater than that of our sun," he said. "But they're compressed to the size of just a few miles. So it's the whole sun squashed into the size of New York City."
More intriguing, Phinney said, neutron stars spin.
"The fastest ones we know are spinning 700 times per second. That's faster than a dental drill or race car engine at top speed. So these are very impressive objects.
"The one Lattimer is looking at happened about 300 years ago," he said of the explosion that created Cassiopeia A, so the star is still in its infancy.
Lattimer, meanwhile, is a stargazer even during his free time at home, where he and daughter Julia frequently scan the night sky.
"I built my first telescope in high school," Lattimer said of his longtime interest in astronomy. "And I recently bought one on Craigslist that a lady was advertising.
"She wanted $10 for it, but it turned out to be a very special kind of telescope with a 13-inch lens made to observe wide regions of the sky at once. So I got a pretty good deal."