HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. — Scott Nutter, 54, is in search of what lies beyond our solar system.

The Northern Kentucky University physics professor has dedicated almost 30 years of his career studying cosmic rays. In August, his research took a giant leap for mankind, so to speak.

On Aug. 14, the International Space Station-Cosmic Ray Energetics and Mass (ISS-CREAM) instrument, an experiment that Nutter and an international team of researchers started seven years ago, was placed on a rocket and launched into space.

“To see the SpaceX rocket take off and know that I have a stake in its mission was unbelievable,” Nutter said. “I was present at the launch, and the experience was unforgettable. I could feel the sound as it hit me. The sound wave felt like a wall, causing my clothing to vibrate and the building to shake.”

The ISS-CREAM, on a three-year mission, will help astrophysicists investigate and study cosmic ray particles. The data that is collected will be used to address fundamental science questions such as:

—Do supernovae supply the bulk of cosmic ray particles?

—What is the history of cosmic ray particles in the galaxy?

—Can the energy spectra of cosmic rays result from a single mechanism?

Nutter said 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,” Nutter said. “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.”

Nutter said the best part is that his students at NKU had a role in this “amazing” experience.

“Really cool stuff is happening at NKU,” he said. “Things like (the ISS-CREAM) are having much impact on the students and their academic pursuits. First and foremost, though, I am a teacher. My research is an extension of my teaching role, and I am pleased that NKU supports it so strongly and that students can make such significant contributions to the research projects, gaining skills that they can turn into jobs later.”

NKU senior Carter Kring, 24, became involved in ISS-CREAM about two years ago.

“I have learned many skills that are applicable to the physics field and much more that are applicable to countless other areas such as data analysis techniques, problem-solving and communication,” Kring said. “I have learned how to figure things out that I don’t understand at first look in a methodical way. I also learned just how much work goes into large projects such as ISS-CREAM. It was shocking to see all the different roles people have played in the experiment and how it only works when all of it comes together.”

Kring has enjoyed most “the feeling of working on an experiment that actually went to space.”

“It is really quite remarkable that I had the opportunity to make contributions to science in my time as an undergraduate,” he said. “Scott Nutter has been an inspiration to me from the start. He has helped guide me into the world of particle physics and he has taught me a lot outside of physics.”

The NKU team was involved with design and fabrication of one of the ISS-CREAM detectors in collaboration with Penn State and NASA-Goddard, and leads the software simulations effort, Nutter said.

Nutter began receiving NASA funding about 10 years ago to convert an 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. Since cosmic rays are absorbed by the atmosphere, detectors must go above the atmosphere to find them, Nutter said.

The ISS-CREAM is about the size of a household refrigerator and weighs almost 3,000 pounds.

In addition to Nutter and NKU’s contribution, the international team that helped build the instrument includes NASA Goddard and Penn State University, as well as institutions in the Republic of Korea, Mexico and France.

For Nutter, the launch has been one of the greatest moments in his career as a scientist and possibly the path into a future career as a comedian.

“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,’ Nutter said.

“Now, it’s great to be able to make that joke.”


Information from: The Cincinnati Enquirer, http://www.enquirer.com