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NASA Sets Up Control Site in Cambridge

Gabor Csanyi -- The Tech
NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin signs the plaque officially giving control of the project to the Smithsonian Astrophysics Observatory. The instrument is scheduled to be launched in 1998.


Weight: 10,560 pounds
On-orbit life: 3 5 years
Instrumentation: spectrometer, high res. camera, high/low energy XPray grating By Jennifer Lane
Editor in Chief

On Friday, NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin officially opened the Advanced X-ray Astrophysics Facility Operations Control Center, located at Draper Laboratory.

The event marked the first time that NASA has transferred control over mission management to a research center at the outset of the project. In this case, the control flowed from NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., to the Smithsonian Astrophyscial Observatory in Cambridge.

"NASA has a new philosophy," Goldin said. The change was motivated by the need to slim down NASA's budget. The center in Cambridge "will be a lower cost operation, because we have the scientists closer to their machines," he said.

Control of the AXAF project is now in the hands of the new Director of AXAF, Harvey D. Tannanbaum from the SAO, and Associate Director Claude R. Canizares, director of the center for space research.

In June, the SAO received a five-year, $63-million addition to an existing contract to establish the OCC as part of the AXAF Science Center under the direction of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.

Control Center monitors missions

The AXAF space observatory will be launched aboard the space shuttle in August 1998. Once in orbit, the craft will be monitored, managed and maneuvered by flight engineers in the OCC, who will also process the data it relays to Earth.

Commands will be transmitted from the OCC in Cambridge to one of three stations comprising NASA's Deep Space Network in Spain, Australia and Owens Valley, Calif., then relayed to the orbiting spacecraft.

The center will be staffed at all times, said Bruce Twambly, a spacecraft systems engineer. "The flight operations team will perform round-the-clock support."

For most of that time, the staff will consist of only two engineers, Twambly said. "We should be able to handle it."

The OCC is housed in space which SAO rents from Draper Laboratory.

Cambridge site offers advantages

Choosing Cambridge as the site for the center has added historical significance, which Goldin outlined during his address.

"Cambridge was the birthplace of X-ray astronomy on planet Earth," Goldin said.

In 1962, Riccardo Giacconi, working for a Massachusetts research firm, and then-Professor of Physics Bruno Rossi discovered SCO X-1, the first known X-ray source outside the solar system.

The discovery came despite intense skepticism at the time about the existence of X-ray sources. The expectation at the time was that Giacconi and Rossi's probes would "pick up absolutely nothing," Goldin said.

Instead, their discovery changed "our understanding of the universe," Goldin said.

With the advent of AXAF, state-of-the-art X-ray astronomy will return to Cambridge and "find a home at Hampshire Street," wrote Senator John F. Kerry in a letter which Goldin read at the ceremony.

The support of Senator John F. Kerry "went a long, long way towards getting the program started," Goldin said. The senator had intended to be at the opening ceremony, but was retained in Washington by hearings of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Placing the control center in Cambridge, at a research institution and away from a major NASA site brought unique challenges.

For instance, the engineers staffing the center will need to be able to do a significant amount of troubleshooting on their own. They "can't go next door to someone who's been doing flight dynamics for 10 years," Twambly said.

Consequently, a significant amount of human engineering was factored into the systems that engineers staffing the center will use. We tried to present "data points coming from the spacecraft in a way sensible to the engineer," said Myles Walton G who has been working since June on the interface.

AXAFgathers important data

AXAF itself is "crucial to the understanding of the universe," Goldin said. "It's an amazing machine."

With it, scientists will be able to glean more information on the age of the universe and the building blocks of stars. They will be able to investigate black holes, exploding stars, and colliding galaxies.

"Some discoveries will build on what we know, and others will turn everything we know upside-down," he said.

Once AXAF is launched, it will take its place with Hubble Space Telescope and Compton Gamma Ray Observatory as part of NASA's fleet of great observatories.

The staff of the ASC includes scientists, engineers and technicians from SAO, MIT, and AXAF prime contractor TRW, who have been directly involved with the design, construction and testing of the telescope and its scientific instruments.

SAO is a research institute of the Smithsonian Institution based in Cambridge, where it is joined with the Harvard College Observatory to form the Center for Astrophysics.

The SAOis the site of the AXAF Science Center, which will receive, analyze, and archive observational data from the spacecraft. SAOscientists were also responsible for the design and fabrication of AXAF's special X-ray-focusing mirrors and one of its primary imaging instruments, the High Resolution Camera.