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Supernova Surprise

Supernova Surprise
By France Griggs Sloat

About 30,000 years ago, our galaxy exploded in a wave of brilliant light that now bathes a bevy of radio telescopes and satellite observatories pointed toward the center of the Milky Way. It was a supernova, the remains of a bright star that collapsed and died, producing particles like gamma rays and creating a palette of data for people such as Marco Fatuzzo to study.

Fatuzzo, a physics professor, is no stranger to these phenomena of space. He tosses around terms like galactic center, black holes and cosmic radiation like Emeril tosses ingredients.

Fatuzzo came to Xavier because he wanted to teach. He’s done well. One of his research students, physics major Eva-Marie David, has given national presentations of a paper she co-authored with him on the stability of Earth-like planets and the likelihood they could support life.

But he also has continued his research into the energy emitted by supernova remnants—in short, high energy astrophysics. He has co-authored six papers and won seven research grants since coming to Xavier in 2000.

His research focuses on the galactic center of our galaxy, which produces an unusually large amount of gamma rays. Fatuzzo wants to know why. The supernova remnant, which sits in the constellation Sagittarius, is a 100,000-year-old dense shell of gas containing matter swept up between the stars.

It is the primary suspect for the source of these high energy rays that eventually bombard Earth, says Fatuzzo. He makes mathematical models using data from radio telescopes on earth and NASA observatories launch into space. The knowledge has no practical application on earth, he says, but that’s no reason not to study it.

“We’re trying to get an understanding of all these things so we can say this is how it is in space,” he says. “Astrophysics is simply a search for the truth to make sense of what we see in the universe.”

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