NASA Unveils First Images From Chandra X-Ray Observatory
Extraordinary first images from NASA's Chandra X-ray
Observatory trace the aftermath of a gigantic stellar explosion in
such stunning detail that scientists can see evidence of what may
be a neutron star or black hole near the center. Another image
shows a powerful X-ray jet blasting 200,000 light years into
intergalactic space from a distant quasar.
Released today, both images confirm that NASA's newest
Great Observatory is in excellent health and its instruments and
optics are performing up to expectations. Chandra, the world's
largest and most sensitive X-ray telescope, is still in its
orbital check-out and calibration phase.
"When I saw the first image, I knew that the dream had been
realized," said Dr. Martin Weisskopf, Chandra Project Scientist,
NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, AL. "This
observatory is ready to take its place in the history of
spectacular scientific achievements."
"We were astounded by these images," said Harvey Tananbaum,
Director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory's Chandra X-
ray Center, Cambridge, MA. "We see the collision of the debris
from the exploded star with the matter around it, we see shock
waves rushing into interstellar space at millions of miles per
hour, and, as a real bonus, we see for the first time a
tantalizing bright point near the center of the remnant that could
possibly be a collapsed star associated with the outburst."
After the telescope's sunshade door was opened last week,
one of the first images taken was of the 320-year-old supernova
remnant Cassiopeia A, which astronomers believe was produced by
the explosion of a massive star. Material blasted into space from
the explosion crashed into surrounding material at 10 million
miles per hour. This collision caused violent shock waves, like
massive sonic booms, creating a vast 50-million degree bubble of
X-ray emitting gas.
Heavy elements in the hot gas produce X-rays of specific
energies. Chandra's ability to precisely measure these X-rays
tells how much of each element is present. With this information,
astronomers can investigate how the elements necessary for life
are created and spread throughout the galaxy by exploding stars.
"Chandra will help to confirm one of the most fascinating
theories of modern science -- that we came from the stars," said
Professor Robert Kirshner of Harvard University. "Its ability to
make X-ray images of comparable quality to optical images will
have an impact on virtually every area of astronomy."
Chandra also imaged a distant and very luminous quasar -- a
single star-like object -- sporting a powerful X-ray jet blasting
into space. The quasar radiates with the power of 10 trillion
suns, energy which scientists believe comes from a supermassive
black hole at its center. Chandra's image, combined with radio
telescope observations, should provide insight into the process by
which supermassive black holes can produce such cosmic jets.
"Chandra has allowed NASA to seize the opportunity to put
the U.S. back in the lead of observational X-ray astronomy," said
Dr. Edward Weiler, Associate Administrator of Space Science, NASA
Headquarters, Washington, DC. "History teaches us that whenever
you develop a telescope 10 times better than what came before, you
will revolutionize astronomy. Chandra is poised to do just that."
The Chandra X-ray observatory was named in honor of the
late Nobel laureate Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar. NASA's Marshall
Space Flight Center manages the Chandra program. TRW, Inc.,
Redondo Beach, CA, is the prime contractor for the spacecraft.
The Smithsonian's Chandra X-ray Center controls science and flight
operations from Cambridge, MA.