Kokomo Tribune; Kokomo, Indiana

January 7, 2013

IUK professor gets $350,000 NASA grant

By Lindsey Ziliak

— An Indiana University Kokomo professor received a prestigious NASA grant to fund his research of neutron stars and black holes.

Patrick Motl, assistant professor of physics at IU Kokomo, is the lead investigator on the project. The $350,000 grant he received will allow him to continue his research for three years.

“When a star much more massive than our own sun runs out of fuel and dies, it explodes in a supernova explosion,” Motl said. “It leaves behind a very dense, small object called a neutron star, or a black hole. Our research will help astronomers identify and study the neutron stars, advancing knowledge in astronomy and astrophysics.”

The systems are so complicated that even observational astronomers often need help understanding what they’re looking at, Motl said.

Motl’s team of five will use computers to simulate mergers between black holes and neutron stars. The density of the neutron star matter makes it impossible to study in any lab, the professor said.

“One thing to remember about neutron stars is, one teaspoon of its matter weighs more than all of humanity combined,” he said. “People don’t really know much about the state of matter at such extreme conditions.”

And the stars are so far away that no one can ever really see them up close. Motl said the computer simulations should help with that.

Motl’s project is one of just 28 that received funding from NASA. More than 180 proposals were submitted.

“I was very surprised to get the award letter,” Motl said. “I was thinking it would be a long shot when I applied.”

Christian Chauret, dean of the school of sciences, said it’s very impressive that Motl is the lead investigator on such a prestigious NASA grant.

The project will be a benefit to IU Kokomo science students. Some will be chosen to serve as research assistants to help “visualize” data.

“It’s also a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for some of our students to participate in certain aspects of the research, especially with the computer simulations and modeling,” Chauret said.

Studying black holes and neutron stars and advancing astronomy and astrophysics has been Motl’s passion for a long time, he said, and the grant is helping him realize some of his dreams.

“I’ve been interested in this since I was a little kid,” he said.