Shuttle launches X-ray telescope
Jul 23, 1999
The Chandra X-ray observatory - the last of NASA's great observatories in space - has been launched by the space shuttle Columbia. The launch was delayed by three days due to technical hitches and bad weather. After Columbia released the $1.5 billion telescope - the heaviest payload the shuttle has ever carried - a solid rocket booster lifted it into a high elliptical orbit. Previous electrical and detector problems with the observatory, and problems with the rocket booster, had already delayed the launch by a year. The European Space Agency hopes to launch its own X-ray telescope, the X-ray multi mirror (XMM) mission, in January.
X-ray observations with Chandra will complement infrared images from the Hubble Space Telescope and higher-energy observations by the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory. Chandra will have a resolution that is 8 times better than any previous X-ray telescope, while its sensitivity will be 20 times better. It will detect X-rays from stellar flares, exploding supernovae, white dwarfs, neutron stars and other astrophysical objects.
Unlike the Hubble Space Telescope - which is expected to last over 15 years - Chandra will have a relatively short life of 5 years. The X-ray telescope's high orbit - designed to avoid the intense radiation of the Van Allen belts that surround the Earth and can damage sensitive instruments - means that the space shuttle cannot return for maintenance and repairs.