News Service


Skip Derra, News Service, (515) 294-4917


AMES, Iowa --

Whole Earth Telescope targets two stars

Astronomers from around the world are training their telescopes on two interesting, and strange, astronomical objects. Some 20 astronomers from 18 observatories are taking part in the latest run of the Whole Earth Telescope (WET), which is based at Iowa State University. The objects of their desire -- a white dwarf star thought to be largely solid and a tightly bound interacting binary star system.

WET is a network of 22 observatories around Earth that can provide 24-hour monitoring of a single astronomical object. Steve Kawaler, an ISU astronomer and director of WET, said the new WET run (April 7 - 22) will include time on the Hubble Space Telescope to augment ground-based observations of a suspected solid star, designated BPM37093. The goal of the observations is to determine if the white dwarf star is in fact a solid or partially solid star. A WET run last year provided some tantalizing clues, and the new "measurements will prove or disprove that solid stars do in fact exist," Kawaler said.

The other object, designated PG1336-018, is a tightly bound interacting binary star system. Both stars, roughly the size of Jupiter, have an orbital rotation of 2.6 hours. By comparison, it takes Earth one year to orbit about the Sun. "This system is miraculous in that the two stars, separated by no more than the distance of the Earth to the moon, complete their orbit so quickly," Kawaler said. "But the best part is the brighter of the two is a pulsating star, so we can peek into its insides and see what makes it tick."

Both observations will help astronomers refine calculations of the age of the universe, as well as see the future of the Sun. "Since our Sun will eventually become a star like these, it is a glimpse into the distant future of what will become of our own star," Kawaler said. Contact Kawaler at (515) 294-9728, or Skip Derra, News Service, (515) 294-4917.

Protecting the electric power infrastructure

Iowa State University is part of a four-university consortium that recently received a multi-million dollar research grant from the Electric Power Research Institute and the U.S. Department of Defense. The Advanced Power Technologies Consortium will develop advanced concepts and technologies to guard against catastrophic failures in the electric power infrastructure. The group will take advantage of new and emerging techniques in information acquisition and interpretation, sensing, system control and optimization, intelligent systems, signal processing, and economics.

The ISU team, which will get $1.48 million over five years, includes faculty members from the departments of electrical and computer engineering, math and economics. Other consortium members are Arizona State University, Tempe; Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg; and the University of Washington, Seattle.

Vijay Vittal, an ISU electrical engineering professor, said the U.S. electric power infrastructure, with its $750 billion capital investment, is one of the most important civil infrastructures of our economy and society. "Widespread catastrophic failures of the electric power infrastructure can be extremely disruptive," Vittal said. "For example, an August 1996 outage in the western United States affected 4 million people in nine states and caused 6 million gallons of raw sewage to be dumped into Santa Monica Bay."

Today's technology is limited in its ability to handle cascaded and catastrophic events, Vittal said. "The weaknesses of our technologies are worsened as our power industry goes through fundamental structural and regulatory changes," he explained. "We want to create a wide-area intelligent, adaptive protection and control system that empowers future power grids by providing critical and extensive information in real-time, assessing system vulnerability quickly, and performing timely self-healing and adaptive reconfiguration actions based on system-wide consideration."

Vittal added that the project could have uses in other critical infrastructure systems, like telecommunications and computer networks. For more information, contact Vittal at (515) 294-8963, or Teddi Barron, Engineering Communications, (515) 294-0262.

Insights may aid development of stronger magnets

Researchers at the U.S. Department of Energy's Ames Laboratory at Iowa State University now have a better understanding of the solidification process of neodymium- iron-boron (Nd-Fe-B) permanent magnets and the role of alloying additions. This knowledge is a fundamental advance in understanding how the magnetic material forms and may aid manufacturers in producing smaller, stronger magnets, the researchers said.

A magnet's performance depends on the size and alignment of its individual crystals, called its microstructure, said Bill McCallum, an Ames Lab senior metallurgist. In order to strengthen the magnets, it is necessary to control their microstructure. As McCallum and scientists Kevin Dennis and Matt Kramer studied the solidification process, they discovered key aspects that control the microstructure of Nd- Fe-B magnets, the most widely used permanent magnets. The understanding they gained enables them to select alloying additions that will produce magnets with specific properties.

While the Ames researchers have focused on the fundamental understanding of the magnet's microstructure, the research results have enabled industry to develop alloys requiring fewer processing steps to optimize magnetic properties. This reduces production costs and saves energy. For more information, contact McCallum at (515) 294-4736, or Susan Dieterle, Ames Laboratory Public Affairs, (515) 294-1405.

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