One year later: Chandra changes way we look at the universe
NASAs Chandra X-ray Observatory is marking its first year in orbit with an impressive list of astronomy "firsts."
Through Chandras images, humans witnessed for the first time the full impact of a blast wave from an exploding star, a flare from a brown dwarf or failed star, and a small galaxy in the process of being cannibalized by a larger galaxy.
"Our goal is to identify never-before-seen phenomena, whether its new or millions of years old. All this leads to a better understanding of our universe, " said Martin Weisskopf, chief project scientist for the Chandra program. "Indeed, Chandra has changed the way we look at the universe."
Chandra was launched in July 1999 and recorded its first images in mid-August 1999. After only two months in space, the observatory revealed a brilliant ring around the heart of the Crab Pulsar in the Crab Nebula the remains of a stellar explosion providing clues about how the nebula is energized by a pulsing neutron, or collapsed, star.
Chandra also detected a faint X-ray source in the Milky Way galaxy, which may be the long-sought X-ray emission from the known massive black hole at the center. A black hole is a region of space with so much mass concentrated in it there is no way for a nearby object even light to escape its gravitational pull.
The observatory captured an image that revealed gas funneling into a supermassive black hole in the heart of the Andromeda galaxy is much cooler than expected. Andromeda is the Milky Ways nearest galaxy neighbor at 2 million light years away.
Recently, Chandra discovered the first X-ray flare ever seen from a brown dwarf.
"Chandra is teaching us to expect the unexpected about all sorts of objects ranging from comets in our solar system and relatively nearby brown dwarfs to distant black holes billions of light years away," said Harvey Tananbaum, director of the Chandra X-ray Center in Cambridge, Mass.
Perhaps one of Chandras greatest contributions to X-ray astronomy to date is the resolution of the X-ray background a glow throughout the universe whose source or sources are unknown. Astronomers are now pinpointing the various sources of the X-ray glow because Chandra compared to previous X-ray telescopes has eight-times greater resolution and is able to detect sources more than 20-times fainter.
Chandras "firsts" began before the telescope left Earth. "The Chandra team had to develop technologies and processes never tried before," said Tony Lavoie, Chandra program manager at Marshall. "One example is that we built and validated a measurement system to make sure the huge cylindrical mirrors of the telescope were ground correctly and polished to the right shape."
The polishing effort resulted in an ultra-smooth surface for all eight of Chandras mirrors. As an analogy, if the state of Colorado were as smooth as the surface of Chandras mirrors, Pikes Peak would be less than an inchtall. As a result, Chandra has such precision resolution, its like someone reading the letters of a stop sign 12 miles away.
"Chandra has experienced a great first year of discovery and we look forward to many more tantalizing science results as the mission continues," said Alan Bunner, program director, Structure and Evolution of the Universe at NASA Headquarters.
NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center manages the Chandra program for the Office of Space Science, NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C. TRW Space and Electronics Group, Redondo Beach, Calif., is the prime contractor. Using glass
purchased from Schott Glaswerke, Mainz, Germany, the telescopes mirrors were built by Raytheon Optical Systems Inc., Danbury, Conn., coated by Optical Coating Laboratory, Inc., Santa Rosa, Calif., and assembled and inserted into the telescope portion of Chandra by Eastman Kodak Co., Rochester, N.Y.
The scientific instruments were supplied by collaborations led by Pennsylvania State University, University Park; Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Cambridge, Mass.; Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Mass.; and the Space Research Organization Netherlands, Utrecht.
The Smithsonian's Chandra X-ray Center controls science and operations from Cambridge, Mass. working with astronomers around the globe to record the activities of the universe.