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First Images Return from the New Chandra X-Ray Telescope

By Kathy Sawyer
THE WASHINGTON POST -- The violent spasms surrounding an exploding star, with what may be the first view of the fireworks around a black hole at the center, were revealed Thursday in sharp “first light” images from NASA’s newest space observatory, the Chandra X-ray Telescope.

“We were astounded by these images,” said Harvey Tananbaum, director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s Chandra X-ray Center in Cambridge, Mass., at a NASA headquarters briefing.

“That’s just a beautiful sight,” said Martin Weisskopf of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, chief scientist for the project. He, Tananbaum and others have spent over two decades on a “roller-coaster ride” working toward this event.

“It works,” said Edward Weiler, NASA’s top scientist, sharing the mixture of triumph and relief. “It works perfectly.” Weiler was chief scientist on the Hubble Space Telescope team when, after the optical telescope was launched to orbit, it was found to have a major flaw built into its primary mirror. Astronauts have been able to repair and regularly upgrade the Hubble. But the Chandra team, taking a gamble to increase the efficiency of the $1.6 billion telescope’s science operations, dispatched their observatory into an egg-shaped orbit that routinely carries it one-third of the way to the moon -- far beyond all hope of retrieval or repair.

The telescope opened its door on the cosmos two weeks ago, after its July 23 launch aboard a space shuttle, and on Aug. 19 focused on the Cassiopeia A supernova, the nearest, youngest example of one of the most violent events in the cosmos. The star exploded 320 years ago, blasting material into space at 10 million mph and sending violent shock waves, like massive sonic booms, outward in all directions. This in turn created a 50 million-degree bubble of X-ray-emitting gas.

The science team, which has not yet analyzed the images, whooped and cheered when they first popped up on computer screens. The pictures and data provide much greater detail than the fuzzy images obtained of the same supernova by previous X-ray satellites, Tananbaum said.

“We see the collision of the debris, ... we see shock waves rushing into interstellar space at millions of miles per hour,” he said. “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.”

The site of gravitational collapse, long sought by astronomers, could be either a black hole or a neutron star-the remnant of the star, some 10 to 30 times the mass of the sun, that exploded.

Scientists theorize that heavy elements such as carbon that make up planets and people are cooked up in the thermonuclear furnaces at the cores of stars. Then, by means of these stellar explosions, the elements are distributed through interstellar space to become the building blocks of other stars, planets and perhaps life.

Chandra will help to confirm one of the most fascinating theories of modern science -- “that we came from the stars,” said Robert Kirshner of Harvard University, an astrophysicist who studies supernovas.