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Dr. Scott Nutter ISS-CREAM experiment
Dr. Nutter and the ISS-CREAM instrument during assembly at Wallops Flight Facility.

August 30, 2017- Northern Kentucky University Physics Professor Dr. Scott Nutter has a research experiment on the International Space Station. NASA launched the ISS-CREAM instrument (Cosmic Ray Energetics and Mass for the International Space Station) into space on August 14 to investigate and study cosmic ray particles.

Cosmic rays are not rays at all, but fast-moving particles zooming through space at nearly the speed of light. They are direct samples of matter from outside our solar system. The particles range in size from electrons to the atomic nuclei of elements such as carbon and boron. Scientists suspect that the particles are primarily accelerated by supernovae, but they could also be signatures of other cataclysmic phenomena.

Dr. Nutter is a member of an international scientific team that developed the ISS-CREAM experiment to measure the relative abundance of cosmic ray nuclei (atomic nuclei from outside our solar system), ranging from hydrogen to iron. He has spent close to three decades studying cosmic rays to learn more about what happens out there. Dr. Nutter began receiving NASA funding almost 10 years ago to convert the earlier CREAM instrument, which collected data while carried by a helium balloon in the upper atmosphere, into a version that can function in space on the International Space Station. After nearly a decade of work to get the instrument rocket ready, Dr. Nutter said it was beyond fulfilling to see it take flight.  

“To see the SpaceX rocket take off and know that I have a stake in its mission was unbelievable. I was present at the launch, and the experience was unforgettable. I could feel the sound as it hit me,” said Dr. Nutter. “I always said if we get the instrument into space and begin to receive data from it, I could jokingly call myself a ‘rocket scientist.’ Now, it’s great to be able to make that joke. My students here at NKU are part of this amazing experience.”

Rocket Launch

According to Dr. Nutter, it was crucial to get the instrument into space because the particles are destroyed in the upper atmosphere of Earth. Now ISS-CREAM has a clearer view of the cosmos. Plus, it should collect cosmic rays in space for several years. Dr. Nutter says they hope to collect rarer, higher-energy cosmic rays in numbers large enough to determine the energy at which supernova shock waves lose the ability to accelerate cosmic rays.

“We can expand the data set that the balloon version, CREAM, found and use that to refine theories on supernova acceleration of cosmic rays. As the data get better, the theories get narrowed down.”

ISS-CREAM is on a three-year mission in space and joins other cosmic ray experiments on the International Space Station, the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer and the CALorimetric Electron Telescope. Dr. Nutter says he hopes his work will help create a stronger understanding of the universe’s fundamental structure.

“Nature doesn’t lay out the questions and answers to be easily discovered. Scientists have to ask new questions and test them. It’s the basis of what we do. Whether an astronomer or astrophysicist using electromagnetic radiation to test theories, or a particle astrophysicist, like me, studying cosmic ray nuclei and electrons, we are all hoping to learn more about what lies beyond our solar system.”

Dr. Nutter’s team began receiving data from ISS-CREAM August 22, 2017 and is in the process of learning how the instrument behaves in its new environment on the International Space Station. ISS-CREAM was developed as part of an international collaboration led by the University of Maryland at College Park. In addition to Dr. Nutter and NKU’s contribution, the team also includes NASA Goddard and Penn State University, as well as institutions in the Republic of Korea, Mexico and France.