New X-ray observatory successfully launched
BY JUSTIN RAY
Posted: July 10, 2005
Five years after the first attempt to launch an observatory with a telescope colder than space itself ended in heartbreak, Japanese and American astronomers are celebrating at last. Their replacement satellite successfully shot into orbit today to study the colors of X-rays and give new insights into the some of the universe's most violent places.
The international ASTRO-E2 spacecraft rode a Japanese M-5 rocket launched from the Uchinoura Space Center, located on the southern tip of the Kyushu island.
This was a do-over launch following the original ASTRO-E spacecraft's demise in February 2000. During that doomed ascent, heat-resistant graphite material mounted in the M-5 rocket's first stage engine nozzle cracked and blew out. The vehicle lost its proper orientation during launch, robbing the booster of speed. The second and third stages were unable to make up the velocity deficit, leaving the observatory in a helpless free fall back into the Earth's atmosphere before completing a single orbit.
Today's flight appeared to be trouble-free beginning following its 0330 GMT (11:30 p.m. EDT Saturday) blastoff. The three-stage rocket deployed the 3,500-pound satellite into an initial orbit of 348 x 153 miles inclined 31.4 degrees to the equator.
Researchers will use ASTRO-E2's sensitivity and high resolution to understand how supermassive black holes, neutron stars and supernova remnants work and test astronomers' theories about the velocities and materials inside super-hot X-ray sources.
The spacecraft builds furthers the ongoing research by the much larger Chandra X-ray Observatory operated by NASA and the European XMM-Newton space telescope. ASTRO-E2 will perform spectroscopy to study the "colors" of X-ray light.
The questions that the mission could help answer:
"Incoming light particles will raise the temperature of the detector by only a few thousandths of a degree," said Dr. Richard Kelley, Principal Investigator for the U.S. contribution to ASTRO-E2. "Knowing the precise energy that these light particles carry, we can infer new information about their origins."
Similar to using a prism to separate colors of light, ASTRO-E2 will reveal the colors of X-rays to determine their temperature and contents of material in death spirals around black holes, new elements blasted from star explosions and the gases between the individual galaxies that make up clusters of galaxies.
A quarter century has been spent developing such a spectrometer instrument. It was supposed to fly aboard the NASA Advanced X-ray Astrophysics Facility. In the early 1990s, however, the monster space probe was split into two smaller ones. Congress would kill the second craft that the featured the spectrometer, leaving the other -- Chandra -- to actually fly in space.
American scientists looked elsewhere to fly their instrument, prompting collaboration starting 12 years ago with the Japanese Institute of Space and Astronautical Science. ASTRO-E2 is Japan's fifth X-ray spacecraft mission.
"ASTRO-E2 will showcase an entirely new technology that will not only serve as a test bed for future missions but produce some spectacular science to boot," said Dr. Anne Kinney, director of the Universe Division in NASA's Science Mission Directorate. "This is the highly anticipated complement to NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and Europe's XMM-Newton."
Joining the XRS instrument are four X-ray Imaging Spectrometer instruments and the Hard X-ray Detector. The mission is expected to last five years.