With NSF boost, deep-space detective eyes death stars

Big-ish bangs: Kilanovae aren't the booms that started it all, but they could help explain it all, according to SUNY-Old Westbury astronomer Michael Kavic, who's taking a closer look.
By GREGORY ZELLER //

A relatively small federal grant will propel a SUNY-Old Westbury instructor deep into the ocean of space, where he’ll track radio waves produced by the spectacular collision of two long-dead stars.

The National Science Foundation has awarded Michael Kavic, an associate professor in the SUNY College at Old Westbury’s Chemistry and Physics Department, a mere $189,233 – a pittance, actually, in an age of million-dollar research grants.

But the award will buy Kavic, a Manhasset resident and oft-scientifically published astronomer, valuable time on a long-wavelength radio telescope in central New Mexico – part of the Long Wavelength Array, a low-frequency radio telescope managed by a host of academic and federal partners, including the University of New Mexico, the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Not to be confused with the nearby Very Large Array (among Jodie Foster’s favorite haunts in “Contact”), the LWA is known for high-sensitivity, high-resolution images in the low-frequency range of 10 to 88 MHz – a previously unopened astronomical window through which scientists can view unexplored swaths of the electromagnetic spectrum.

Michael Kavic: Neutron dance.

Kavic and research partner John Simonetti, a Virginia Tech physics and astronomy professor, will use the telescope time to research the radio-wave bursts produced by the merger of two neutron stars – the collapsed cores of two supergiant stars, each as much as 25 times bigger than our own sun, drawn together by the relentless forces of gravity to create a stellar event known as a kilanova.

The kilanova converts all that dead star-stuff into immense amounts of energy and creates other extreme conditions – for instance, it releases gold and platinum in quantities equal to the mass of multiple Earths, according to Kavic, who will glimpse hi-res images of these distant, massive explosions through the LWA.

“The collision of neutron stars produces an energetic explosion that releases 200 million suns’ worth of energy,” the astronomer noted. “This grant will allow us the opportunity to better understand that first burst of low-frequency light from this type of explosion.”

And that will help Kavic et al test groundbreaking theories about the nature of space and time, work that builds on the scientist’s previous kilanova research. In 2017, Kavic – who earned NASA research grants while teaching at Long Island University and the College of New Jersey before coming to SUNY-Old Westbury in 2018 – was part of a science team that observed an ancient kilanova some 130 million lightyears away.

Low profile: Low frequencies, aiming high, at the LWA.

Among their discoveries: actual, detectable space-time ripples, emanating from the kilanova in waves.

Kavic, who earned his PhD in physics from Virginia Tech and has appeared often in peer-reviewed publications like the Astrophysical Journal and the Journal of High Energy Physics, believes his small NSF grant will help answer some of the largest questions about nature itself, by helping him look back in time and track those hard-to-see radio-wave bursts.

“Because of its dramatic nature, this type of event opens a new window on the fundamental nature of the universe,” Kavic said.