Chandra observatory marks a decade of X-ray astronomy
BY STEPHEN CLARK
Posted: July 23, 2009
Astronomers celebrated the 10th birthday of the Chandra X-ray Observatory on Thursday, a decade after the shuttle Columbia sent the hefty telescope to a looping orbit high above Earth.
"Chandra's discoveries are truly astonishing and have made dramatic changes to our understanding of the universe and its constituents," said Martin Weisskopf, project scientist at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.
Chandra has also produced convincing evidence supporting the existence of dark matter, invisible material that astrophysicists believe makes up less than one-fourth of the universe.
Researchers have also used the bus-sized observatory to investigate dark energy, an even more exotic force causing the universe's expansion rate is accelerating. Chandra independently confirmed dark energy is real, according to NASA.
Built by Northrop Grumman Corp., the 10,000-pound spacecraft rode space shuttle Columbia into orbit on July 23, 1999.
Columbia deployed Chandra and a solid-fueled Inertial Upper Stage about nine hours after liftoff. The upper stage fired twice to propel Chandra toward its operational orbit stretching one-third of the way to the moon.
Chandra and its booster rocket, weighing a combined 50,000 pounds, combine to form the heaviest payload ever launched by a space shuttle.
Chandra has doubled its original five-year mission, producing nearly 10,000 individual observations and logging more than 60,000 hours of sciecne observing time, according to Northrop Grumman.
"Chandra has significantly expanded the world's scientific knowledge base about the nature of our universe," said Dave DiCarlo, sector vice president and general manager of Northrop Grumman's space systems division. "It has opened up new vistas of study for the world's astronomers and provided technology and integration and test techniques that we're using to develop the next generation of space observatories."
"Right now, a 15-year mission appears totally feasible and 20 years is being looked into," said Megan Watzke, spokesperson for the Chandra X-ray Center at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass.
Originally proposed in 1976, Chandra unveiled a strikingly different universe from the objects observed by telescopes specializing in other forms of light.
"The Great Observatories program, of which Chandra is a major part, shows how astronomers need as many tools as possible to tackle the big questions out there," said Ed Weiler, associate administrator for NASA's science mission directorate.
Other Great Observatories include the Hubble Space Telescope, the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, and the Spitzer Space Telescope. Unlike Hubble, Chandra was not designed to be repaired by the space shuttle because of its high-altitude orbit.
"I am extremely proud of the tremendous team of people who worked so hard to make Chandra a success," said Harvey Tananbaum, director of the Chandra X-ray Center. "It has taken partners at NASA, industry and academia to make Chandra the crown jewel of high-energy astrophysics."