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Astronaut arrival
The Gulfstream jet carrying space shuttle Discovery's seven astronauts arrives at the Kennedy Space Center launch site after a two-hour flight from Houston. (5min 54sec file)
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Crew speaks
Each Discovery astronaut makes a speech to the assembled group of news reporters and photographers at the runway to cover the crew's arrival at Kennedy Space Center. (13min 57sec file)
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Shuttle collection
As excitement builds for the first space shuttle launch in over two years, this comprehensive video selection captures the major pre-flight events for Discovery and her seven astronauts.
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What is NASA's future?
Administrator Mike Griffin is the sole witness testifying before the House Science Committee in this hearing on the future of NASA. (2hr 01min 09sec file)
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Address to NASA
One day before beginning the space shuttle Flight Readiness Review, Administrator Mike Griffin gives a televised address to agency workers and answers questions. (26min 09sec file)

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Shuttle task group
The Stafford-Covey Task Group holds a news conference from NASA Headquarters following the panel's final public hearing on the space shuttle program. (55min 58sec file)

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Supply ship docking
The 18th Progress resupply ship launched to the International Space Station is guided to docking with the Zvezda service module's aft port via manual control from commander Sergei Krikalev. A problem thwarted plans for an automated linkup.

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House hearing on ISS
The House Science Committee, Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics, begins its hearing on the International Space Station. (29min 59sec file)
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Phillips testifies
House members question Expedition 11 crew member John Phillips living on the International Space Station. (16min 33sec file)
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Past ISS astronauts
The hearing continues with questioning by House members of former station astronauts Peggy Whitson and Mike Fincke. (31min 33sec file)
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New X-ray observatory successfully launched

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:

  • When and where are chemical elements created?
  • How do clusters of galaxies merge?
  • What happens when matter falls into a black hole?
  • How do you heat gases to X-ray-emitting temperatures?
The X-ray Spectrometer, or XRS, is the craft's primary instrument. This revolutionary cryogenically-cooled device allows the heat from individual high-energy X-ray light particles to be measured with a precision about 10 times greater than previous sensors. These remarkable observations are possible by cooling the detector to 0.060 degrees Kelvin, or -460 degrees Fahrenheit. That makes the instrument the coldest object in space.

"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.