European gamma ray observatory awaits blastoff

Posted: October 16, 2002

Proton rocket is rolled out and erected on the launch pad with Integral. Photo: ESA/S.Corvaja
Russian and European teams are gearing up for the Thursday launch of a space observatory designed to view the most powerful radiation and explosions in the Universe.

Launch of the Russian Proton rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan is slated for 0441 GMT (12:41 a.m. EDT), at the opening of an approximate seven-minute window.

The Proton and attached Integral satellite were rolled out of their assembly building Saturday and transported horizontally by rail to the launch pad in the Kazakh steppes. The launcher was then lifted vertically for final preparations before liftoff.

The four-stage rocket will haul the 9,000-pound International Gamma Ray Astrophysics Laboratory into a highly elliptical orbit that will take the spacecraft one-third of the way to the Moon. This orbit allows Integral to stay away from radiation belts closer to Earth for the majority of each orbit, decreasing the possibility of interference on the satellite's sensitive scientific payload.

After successfully achieving orbit, Integral will be put through its paces, with the deployment of solar panels, antennas and scientific instruments following in the days, weeks and months after launch. Once all is verified ready, Integral will begin its minimum two-year mission. An extension to five years is possible if funding allows.

An artist's concept of Integral in Earth orbit. Photo: ESA/D. Ducros
Touted as the most sensitive gamma ray observatory ever launched, Integral promises to gather images and data more accurately than ever before. Gamma ray bursts -- the most violent explosions in the Universe -- will be observed with regularity by Integral, bringing new information to light by studying the sources and results of such extreme events.

Another objective of Integral is to view the formation of elements as a by-product of the enormous amounts of energy and matter released by the giant supernovae of dying stars. These elements are theorized to have formed the building blocks of the Universe that we know today.

Integral was developed and built by Alenia Aerospazio of Italy, prime contractor for the program. All member states of the European Space Agency have a contribution to the project, along with Russia, the United States, the Czech Republic and Poland.

To keep program costs down, Integral re-used the basic design of the XMM-Newton observatory launched in 1999. Aboard the spacecraft are four primary instruments weighing over two metric tons, making Integral's scientific payload the heaviest of any ESA orbital spacecraft.

An exploded view shows the various pieces that make up Integral. Photo: ESA

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