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  sci-tech > space > story pagecorner  

First Chandra images show stellar explosion, X-ray jet

Cassiopeia image
Chandra's first X-ray image, of the Cassiopeia A supernova remnant. The bright object near the center may be the long sought neutron star or black hole remnant of the explosion that produced Cassiopeia A, astronomers said

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CNN's Natalie Pawelski reports on the first images to appear from the Chandra space telescope.
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August 26, 1999
Web posted at: 1:25 p.m. EDT (1725 GMT)

By Robin Lloyd
CNN Interactive Senior Writer

In this story:

'This is just a beautiful sight'

Cheers as Chandra took first look

Already, new mysteries


(CNN) -- A gigantic stellar explosion with a possible neutron star or black hole at its center is one of the first crisp data offerings of NASA's newest space telescope, scientists said Thursday.

Another early image shows a powerful X-ray jet blasting 200,000 light years into intergalactic space from a distant quasar.

The week-old images released Thursday prove that NASA's $1.5 billion Chandra X-ray Observatory is in excellent health and its instruments and optics are performing well, said Ed Weiler, NASA's associate administrator for space science.

"It works perfectly," Weiler said. "It's meeting all of our specifications."

The images were taken on the first day of observing during a six-week checkout and calibration phase for Chandra, the world's largest and most powerful X-ray telescope.

"To do this on day one to me is like an infant somehow opening its eyes for the first time and discovering a new planet," said Harvard University astrophysicist Robert Kirshner, who is not part of the Chandra science team.

Weiler, Kirshner and other mission leaders discussed the Chandra data at a news conference Thursday at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Astronauts released Chandra from the space shuttle a month ago, and the telescope currently is orbiting high above Earth, reaching a third of the way to the moon at its furthest reach.

Chandra image
One of the first images returned by the Chandra X-ray Observatory shows a quasar with an extended radio jet that stretches to the right in this picture.   

'That's just a beautiful site'

Engineers and managers at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory's Chandra X-ray Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, have been on pins and needles ever since the launch, working to put the telescope into operation.

Harvey Tananbaum, director of Chandra control center, said he was astounded by the image of the explosion, which shows the 320-year-old supernova remnant Cassiopeia A.

"That's just a beautiful sight," he said. "Those of us who have worked on it just are absolutely enthralled with it."

The light coming from the remnant is 100 billion times the luminosity of our sun, Kirshner said. Cassiopeia A is the youngest and most scientifically interesting supernova remnant in the universe, he said.

The image shows the collision of debris from the star with matter around it, as well as shock waves rushing into interstellar space at millions of miles per hour.

The bonus is a bright point near the center of the remnant which could be the now-collapsed star responsible for the explosion in the first place. The colors in the images were assigned to show the relative intensities of energy and do not reflect colors in space.

Chandra is designed to study X-rays, the highest energy radiation sources in the universe, at such sites as black holes, colliding galaxies and quasars at the edge of time. X-rays in space are 1,000 times more energetic than visible light, Kirshner said.

Cheers as Chandra took first look

The telescope's sunshade door was opened nearly two weeks ago. A week later, some of the first X-rays to travel down Chandra's concentric mirror barrel showed Cassiopeia A, bringing cheers from Chandra's flight operations team.

Astronomers believe the remnant was produced by the explosion of a massive star weighing 10 to 30 times the mass of our sun. Material blasted into space from the explosion crashed into surrounding material at 10 million mph.

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 instruments can precisely measure the X-rays to tell how much of each element is present. With this information, astronomers hope to learn how the elements necessary for life are created and spread throughout the galaxy by exploding stars.

Chandra could confirm a long-held theory of modern science, echoed in Shakespeare -- that we came from the stars, Kirshner said. The X-ray images show the "material that we are made of," he said, such as the calcium in our bones, the silicon that makes up parts of Chandra and the heavier elements.

Already, new mysteries

Chandra also snapped a distant, luminous quasar -- a single star-like object -- with a powerful X-ray jet blasting from it into space. Ironically, astronomers chose to focus on the quasar because they were looking for a single point on which to focus and calibrate Chandra.

Instead, they found the enormous jet blasting from the quasar. Our Milky Way galaxy could fit in the bright center of the jet, Tananbaum said.

The quasar radiates with the power of 10 trillion suns, energy which scientists believe comes from a supermassive black hole at its center.

But the jet raises a mystery, Kirshner said, of how the X-ray blast was generated from such a relatively small area -- about the size of our solar system. The jet then traveled 200 million light years -- another mystery, Kirshner said.

The X-ray telescope, managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, was named in honor of the late Nobel laureate Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar.

A panel of scientists has selected 205 proposals from researchers who will use the telescope in the next year to address more questions about supernovas, dark matter and galaxy formation.

Chandra was designed to last for five years, but it looks like it could last for a couple decades, project scientist Martin Weisskopf said.

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Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics - Chandra Xray Observatory Center
Marshall Space Flight News Center: Chandra X-ray Observatory News
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