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New X-ray orbiter finds universe hotter than thought

 GALLERY
«      »

February 10, 2000
Web posted at: 5:34 p.m. EST (2234 GMT)

MADRID -- It's gathering images of a spider-shaped nebula, a pack of colliding galaxies and a deep-red star. And the XXM-Newton -- a new X-ray observatory in Earth orbit -- is producing pictures that European Space Agency (ESA) scientists say suggest the universe is hotter than estimated.

"I am amazed by the quality of the pictures as compared to previous X-ray missions," says a statement from Prof. Roger Bonnet, ESA's director of science.

"We see on them a lot of new sources, especially in the parts of the spectrum which correspond to the hottest temperatures and we see that the universe is hotter than we thought."

Observation of objects from space -- over a range of X-ray, ultraviolet and visible wavelengths -- is a unique feature of the XMM-Newton observatory, which the ESA launched in December. The satellite is named for Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727) and the spectroscopy he's credited with inventing.

  MESSAGE BOARD
 

The images confirm that the telescopes and instruments on the space observatory are working well, according to project astronomers in Madrid.

Image trio

The spacecraft pointed its three cameras into deep space and snapped colorful portraits of three subjects.

One is the Large Magellanic Cloud, some 160,000 light-years from Earth. At least part of it is an expanding cauldron also known as the Nebula Major. It's an irregularly shaped galaxy that can be seen with the naked eye south of the equator -- it appears to be spiraling into the Milky Way. The image zooms in on an area of the cloud known as 30 Doradus or the Tarantula Nebula.

The remnants of a star that exploded as a supernova in 1987 (1987A) are visible in the lower-right corner of the image. This was the first such explosion visible to the naked eye since the light of Kepler's star was observed on Earth in 1604.

"These first pictures are tremendously exciting after so many years of work," says Martin Turner, a camera specialist with the XMM project, in a statement. "They are all that we hoped they would be. ... We can see the elements, which go to make up new stars and planets, being released in giant stellar explosions."

Another subject is a galaxy cluster known as HCG-16, one of dozens of compact star clusters that most likely slam iinto one another. Study of such clusters helps astronomers understand the evolution of galaxies and the nature of the mysterious "dark matter" that scientists say could make up much the universe.

A third image is composed of several bright X-ray sources. It also spots, for the first time, dozens of faint X-ray sources. In this case, the XMM-Newton compared the subjects' optical, ultraviolet and X-ray properties, an ability project managers say they consider to be a major strength.

The observatory took the pictures in late January after its launch on an Ariane 5 rocket. The XMM is expected to begin regular scientific operations in June.



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