Physics Student’s Search for Precious Metals from Neutron Stars Hits the Funding Motherlode

Physics Student’s Search for Precious Metals from Neutron Stars Hits the Funding Motherlode

The collision of neutron stars during the formation of the early universe resulted in precious metals like gold and platinum soaring through the heavens. A School of Physics graduate student will get NASA funding to explore that heavy metal-making process through simulations. 

Neutron stars collide, and a swarm of heavy elements like gold and platinum shoot out into the universe. Danielle Skinner wants to learn more about that process, and thanks to NASA, she won’t have to worry about funding that research for the next three years.

Skinner, a graduate student of associate professor John Wise in the School of Physics, is the winner of a NASA FINESST (Future Investigators in NASA Earth and Space Science and Technology) Award. Only 19 of 158 astrophysics proposals were selected for the fellowship. 

“I was surprised to see that I had been selected,” says Skinner, a graduate teaching assistant. “I had to read the email a few times over for it to really sink in.” 

“I was ecstatic when I first received news of Danielle's fellowship,” Wise says. “I am very proud of her. This independent fellowship is very prestigious, and gives Danielle the freedom to explore the mysteries of the early universe.”

Through the FINESST program, NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) “solicits proposals from accredited U.S. universities and other eligible organizations for graduate student-designed and performed research projects that contribute to SMD’s science, technology and exploration goals,” according to a space agency press release. 

“FINESST awards research grants with a research mentor as the principal investigator and the listed graduate student listed as the student participant. Wise, who is also a member of Georgia Tech’s Center for Relativistic Astrophysics, is listed as principal investigator (PI) and Skinner is the future investigator (FI).

“Nucleosynthesis from Neutron Star Mergers in the Early Universe” is the title of Skinner’s proposal. It will take Wise and Skinner back to the early stages of the universe through simulations. An ongoing quest in astrophysics is understanding the evolution of the periodic table, and in particular, figuring out where some of the heaviest elements, like gold and platinum, actually came from. 

“We think that in the early universe, merging neutron stars could provide the right environment for these elements to form, and eventually, those heavy elements would end up in stars that we see today,” she says. 

Skinner will run a series of simulations where she models neutron star mergers with varying parameters to try to find those with heavy metal abundances.