UNH prof wins NASA grant to study cosmic explosions

Concept gets $2 million for further research
Mark Mcconnell Sm
UNH Professor Marl McConnell

A University of New Hampshire professor’s proposal has been selected by NASA as one of four research concepts to receive $2 million in funding to study cosmic explosions and their debris.

The concept, the Large Area burst Polarimeter, or LEAP, is led by principal investigator Mark McConnell of the University of New Hampshire in Durham and director of R&D at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas.

The mission is being managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

Each of the four Small Explorer mission concepts will be studying cosmic explosions and the debris they leave behind, as well as monitor how nearby stellar flares may affect the atmospheres of orbiting planets.

The LEAP mission would be an instrument mounted as an external payload to the International Space Station, and its primary mission would be to study the polarization of gamma rays from gamma-ray bursts, or GRBs, which are the most energetic explosions in the universe and are jets of material ejected from the core-collapse of massive stars or when two neutron stars collide.

An instrument capable of measuring the polarization of the GRB radiation could answer several open questions about the jets’ physics and the underlying processes that produce the jets. Specifically, measuring the polarization could inform us about the magnetic field strengths present in these systems during core-collapse or collision; it could tell whether the jet itself mostly contains matter moving at very near the speed of light or contains a lot of radiation; and it could also indicate how the matter in the jet is converted to the gamma rays that can be observed.

“LEAP represents the culmination of many years of work to make some extremely important measurements,” said McConnell. “Not only do we have the right instrument for the task, but we also have been very successful in putting together a team of researchers who represent some of the foremost researchers in the study of Gamma Ray Bursts. We are thrilled with the prospects for the LEAP project.”

The LEAP instrument is composed of gamma ray scintillators coupled to photo-multiplier tubes. LEAP’s very large observing area will make it sensitive to detecting many GRBs, so GRB polarization could be measured for potentially hundreds of GRBs, allowing for a population analysis, NASA said.

“These promising proposals under the Explorers Program bring out some of the most creative, innovative ways to help uncover the secrets of the universe,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, D.C. “From studying stars and planets outside our solar system to seeking answers to the largest cosmic mysteries, I look forward to the breakthrough science from these modest size missions.”

The four selected missions are being given an opportunity to improve their proposed mission concept during an extended phase-A research phase that ends in 2021. After that, NASA intends to select two of the four proposed mission concepts at that time for further development and launch in 2025.

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