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Celebrating X-Ray Astronomy — Chandra, NuSTAR

This article “NASA Unveils Amazing Cosmic Views as Chandra X-Ray Observatory Turns 20” (July 28, 2019) reminded me of the limited vision provided only with visible light. Consumer security (and other) cameras have accustomed more of us to regularly seeing infrared light (a longer wavelength part of the electromagnetic spectrum). And that “light” behaves like, well, light regardless. Our experience with X-ray photography, however, is mostly of medical images, again seeing beyond the visible facade of things.

Our progress in understanding the universe has been an adventure in seeing the invisible. The Chandra X-ray Observatory is a key chapter in that saga. Launched in July 1999, this space telescope mission is observing its 20 anniversary. In particular, celebrating the amazing discoveries of multispectral astronomy — “how X-rays complement the data collected in other types of light.” Truly a success of big science (and beyond the ability of Superman, eh).

[NASA] “Chandra remains peerless in its ability to find and study X-ray sources,” Belinda Wilkes, Chandra X-ray Center director, said in a statement. “Since virtually every astronomical source emits X-rays, we need a telescope like Chandra to fully view and understand our universe.”

Chandra’s discoveries have impacted virtually every aspect of astrophysics. For example, Chandra was involved in a direct proof of dark matter’s existence. It has witnessed powerful eruptions from supermassive black holes. Astronomers have also used Chandra to map how the elements essential to life are spread from supernova explosions.

Many of the phenomena Chandra now investigates were not even known when the telescope was being developed and built. For example, astronomers now use Chandra to study the effects of dark energy, test the impact of stellar radiation on exoplanets, and observe the outcomes of gravitational wave events.

Here’s NASA’s YouTube commemorative video:

Discover how an X-ray telescope has revolutionized astronomy and our understanding of the Universe. A scientific and engineering marvel, NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory has spent two decades (so far) exploring the cosmos unlike any other telescope. What it has found will astound you. Credit: Steer Films & NASA/CXC/SAO [1]

And here’s a link to a gallery of anniversary images. An example is below.

In this composite image of Cygnus OB2, X-rays from Chandra (red diffuse emission and blue point sources) are shown with optical data from the Isaac Newton Telescope (diffuse emission in light blue) and infrared data from the Spitzer Space Telescope (orange). Image credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/J. Drake et al; H-alpha: Univ. of Hertfordshire/INT/IPHAS; Infrared: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Spitzer


[1] More from the YouTube video’s description:

On July 23, 1999, the Space Shuttle Columbia launched into space carrying the heaviest payload ever flown. In its cargo bay was the Chandra X-ray Observatory, a first-of-its-kind telescope that would open a new window into exploring the Universe.

Unlike the Hubble Space Telescope, its older cousin, Chandra detects X-rays from space instead of the kind of light that humans can see. Only a handful of decades before, scientists didn’t know objects in space gave off X-rays. Because the Earth’s atmosphere absorbs this high-energy light, people had to wait until the dawn of the Space Age to realize that space is aglow in light that invisible to our eyes. Once known, a different kind of space race emerged.

The Chandra X-ray Observatory is the culmination of decades of collaboration between scientists and engineers, private and public institutions, the United States and those around the world. Two decades after its launch, Chandra remains the most powerful X-ray telescope and continues to reveal secrets about black holes, exploded stars, and the nature of the Universe itself.

NASA's Great Space Observatories

13 thoughts on “Celebrating X-Ray Astronomy — Chandra, NuSTAR

  1. > “Watch As a Supernova Morphs and Its Speedy Shock Waves Reverse” by Elizabeth Howell (October 14, 2019)

    A new video from NASA shows how a supernova explosion morphs and changes during a 13-year period, The growing debris field, known as Cassiopeia A or Cas A, likely was generated after a star explosion in 1680. New data from NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory shows that even an old explosion can change in subtle ways during a human lifetime.

    The video combines X-ray data from Chandra with observations from the Hubble Space Telescope, which observes in visual and infrared light. Hubble’s data was held constant to emphasize the changes Chandra observed over time, according to Chandra personnel.

  2. > “NASA’s Chandra X-ray space telescope reveals a double star system with an alter ego” by Samantha Mathewson (February 24, 2020).

    At this stage, the stellar duo is referred to as a low-mass X-ray binary. However, as orbiting material in the accretion disk spirals toward the neutron star, it rotates faster and transforms into what is known as a millisecond pulsar star, which emits pulses of radio waves detected by the VLA. After a few years, the stellar duo appears to return to its original state.

  3. > “Astronomers detect biggest explosion in the history of the Universe” by International Centre for Radio Astronomy Research (February 27, 2020).

    “But it happened very slowly—like an explosion in slow motion that took place over hundreds of millions of years.”

    The explosion occurred in the Ophiuchus galaxy cluster, about 390 million light-years from Earth.

    It was so powerful it punched a cavity in the cluster plasma—the super-hot gas surrounding the black hole.

    Lead author of the study Dr. Simona Giacintucci, from the Naval Research Laboratory in the United States, said … “… you could fit 15 Milky Way galaxies in a row into the crater this eruption punched into the cluster’s hot gas.”

    The discovery was made using four telescopes; NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, ESA’s XMM-Newton, the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA) in Western Australia and the Giant Metrewave Radio Telescope (GMRT) in India.

    The finding underscores the importance of studying the Universe at different wavelengths, Professor Johnston-Hollitt said: “Going back and doing a multi-wavelength study has really made the difference here.”

  4. Data from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory continues to provide insights into our very own Milky Way. In this case, a new way to visualize space near the supermassive black hole Sagittarius A*. This VR tour requires a special headset – only the HTC VIVE is supported. > “Visit the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole with ‘Galactic Center VR’ visualization (video)” by Elizabeth Howell (June 4, 2020).

    A new virtual reality experience lets you fly closely, but safely, towards the supermassive black hole embedded in the heart of our galaxy, the Milky Way.

    The “adventure” visualization is called Galactic Center VR and is based on data from NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory, as well as other telescopes. The latest iteration allows viewers to see 500 years of evolution at Sagittarius A* (Sgr A*), the black hole in the Milky Way’s Center. You can view the experience for free from Steam or Vivepoint.

    “When the winds from the Wolf-Rayet stars collide, the material is heated to millions of degrees by shocks — similar to sonic booms — and produce copious amounts of X-rays,” NASA said in a statement. “The center of the galaxy is too distant for Chandra to detect individual examples of these collisions, but the overall X-ray glow of this hot gas is detectable with Chandra’s sharp X-ray vision.”

    Chandra is one of the two remaining NASA “Great Observatories” that launched to space in the 1990s and 2000s to observe astronomical phenomena in different wavelengths of light. The other observatories are the Hubble Space Telescope (still active), the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory (decommissioned in 2000) and the Spitzer Space Telescope (retired earlier this year).

  5. 12-9-2021

    🚀 New SpaceX launch of NASA’s X-ray Polarimetry Explorer spacecraft – IXPE.


    Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer, commonly known as IXPE, is a space observatory with three identical telescopes designed to measure the polarization of cosmic X-rays. The observatory, which was launched 9 December 2021, is an international collaboration between NASA and the Italian Space Agency (ASI).

    The mission will study exotic astronomical objects and permit mapping the magnetic fields of black holes, neutron stars, pulsars, supernova remnants, magnetars, quasars, and active galactic nuclei. The high-energy X-ray radiation from these objects’ surrounding environment can be polarized – vibrating in a particular direction. Studying the polarization of X-rays reveals the physics of these objects and can provide insights into the high-temperature environments where they are created.

    See also:

    • Cnet > “SpaceX launches NASA’s new black hole observatory and breaks its own record” by Eric Mack (Dece 9, 2021) – A Falcon 9 rocket sends a new observatory called IXPE into space to study the most mysterious forces in the universe.

    Includes YouTube video:

    • YouTube > CNET Highlights > “WATCH: NASA’s IXPE Observatory Launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9 Rocket – Livestream” (Dec 8, 2021) – Tune in at 9:30pm PT on Wed. Dec. 8 when NASA’s IXPE Observatory launches into space aboard a Falcon 9 rocket.


    X-ray optics

    Polarization (waves)

    NASA's X-ray Polarimetry Explorer spacecraft – IXPE

  6. 🚀 While this APOD contains an excellent photo of the IXPE launch arc, the caption is fascinating as well – about what’s changed for modern humans.

    • NASA > APOD > “Launch of the IXPE Observatory” (December 22, 2021)

    (image caption) Explanation: Birds don’t fly this high. Airplanes don’t go this fast. The Statue of Liberty weighs less.

    No species other than human can even comprehend what is going on, nor could any human just a millennium ago. The launch of a rocket bound for space is an event that inspires awe and challenges description.

    Pictured here, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket lifted off from Kennedy Space Center, Florida earlier this month carrying the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE). IXPE is scheduled to observe high-energy objects such as neutron stars, black holes, and the centers of distant galaxies to better determine the physics and geometries that create and control them.

    From a standing start, the 300,000+ kilogram rocket ship lifted IXPE up to circle the Earth, where the outside air is too thin to breathe. Rockets bound for space are now launched from somewhere on Earth every few days.

  7. • NASA > “‘Mini’ Monster Black Hole Could Hold Clues to Giant’s Growth” (Jan 10, 2022)

    Researchers used NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory to identify a black hole containing about 200,000 times the mass of the Sun buried in gas and dust in the galaxy Mrk 462.

    Mrk 462 contains only several hundred million stars, making it a dwarf galaxy. By contrast, our Milky Way is home to a few hundred billion stars. This is one of the first times that a heavily buried, or “obscured,” supermassive black hole has been found in a dwarf galaxy.

    How do astronomers identify black holes?

    • rapid motions of stars in the centers of galaxies

    • signatures, such as gas being heated up to millions of degrees and glowing in [high energy] X-rays

    Ongoing research topic: How did some black holes grow to a billion solar masses by the time the universe was less than a billion years old?

  8. Data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory used in visualization of binary star system.

    • NASA > APOD > “Symbiotic R Aquarii” (February 5, 2022)

    Image Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO/R. Montez et al.; Optical: Data: NASA/ESA/STScI, Processing: Judy Schmidt (CC BY-NC-SA)

    Explanation: Variable star R Aquarii is actually an interacting binary star system, two stars that seem to have a close symbiotic relationship. Centered in this space-based optical/x-ray composite image it lies about 710 light years away. The intriguing system consists of a cool red giant star and hot, dense white dwarf star in mutual orbit around their common center of mass.

    With binoculars you can watch as R Aquarii steadily changes its brightness over the course of a year or so. The binary system’s visible light is dominated by the red giant, itself a Mira-type long period variable star. But material in the cool giant star’s extended envelope is pulled by gravity onto the surface of the smaller, denser white dwarf, eventually triggering a thermonuclear explosion, blasting material into space.

    Astronomers have seen such outbursts over recent decades. Evidence for much older outbursts is seen in these spectacular structures spanning almost a light-year as observed by the Hubble Space Telescope (in red and blue). Data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory (in purple) shows the X-ray glow from shock waves created as a jet from the white dwarf strikes surrounding material.

  9. Planetary X-rays! Yes, planets can emit X-rays. Holy Ming the Merciless death ray, Batman! (Maybe Superman can see such emissions, eh.) But what’s going on?

    Here’s a saga about Jupiter (published February 10 in the journal Nature Astronomy). And moon Io. Ions and auroras. And also electrons and the magnetic field – like a giant particle (electron) accelerator. This article includes a short video.

    • > “NASA space telescope spots most powerful light ever seen on Jupiter, helps solve 30-year-old mystery” by Chelsea Gohd (February 11, 2022)

    In a new study, researchers using NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) space observatory were able to spot the highest-energy light ever seen on Jupiter. The light, which is X-ray radiation, is also the highest-energy light ever seen on a planet in our solar system other than Earth.

    This is not the first time that X-rays have been spotted at Jupiter; NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory as well as the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton observatory have both observed low-energy X-rays coming from auroras on the giant planet.

  10. A story about “more data is always good,” even when you can’t point a space telescope directly at cosmic objects of interest.

    • > “NASA’s NuSTAR makes illuminating discoveries with ‘nuisance’ light” by Jet Propulsion Laboratory (March 1, 2022)

    For almost 10 years, NASA’s NuSTAR (Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array) X-ray space observatory has been studying some of the highest-energy objects in the universe, such as colliding dead stars and enormous black holes feasting on hot gas. During that time, scientists have had to deal with stray light leaking in through the sides of the observatory, which can interfere with observations much like external noise can drown out a phone call.

    But now team members have figured out how to use that stray X-ray light to learn about objects in NuSTAR’s peripheral vision while also performing normal targeted observations. This development has the potential to multiply the insights that NuSTAR provides. A new science paper in The Astrophysical Journal describes the first use of NuSTAR’s stray light observations [e.g., brightness fluctuations from peripheral objects] to learn about a cosmic object—in this case, a neutron star [SMC X-1].

  11. Here’s another fascinating apsect of some pulsars – antimatter beams.

    • > “Tiny star unleashes gargantuan beam of matter, anti-matter” by Chandra X-ray Center (March 14, 2022)

    Astronomers have imaged a beam of matter and antimatter that is 40 trillion miles long with NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. The record-breaking beam is powered by a pulsar [PSR J2030+4415], a rapidly rotating collapsed star with a strong magnetic field.

    With its tremendous scale, this beam may help explain the surprisingly large numbers of positrons, the antimatter counterparts to electrons, throughout the Milky Way galaxy.

    The combination of two extremes—fast rotation and high magnetic fields of pulsars—leads to particle acceleration and high-energy radiation that creates electron and positron pairs.

  12. Celebrating X-Ray Astronomy: Here’s a well visualized video of the NuSTAR mission after 10 years in space.

    • The Caltech Weekly (6-16-2022) > YouTube > Caltech > “NuSTAR Celebrates 10 Years in Space” (June 9, 2022)

    Description: Launched from a rocket strapped to the belly of an aircraft on June 13, 2012, NASA’s NuSTAR mission is celebrating 10 years in space. The mission, which detects high-energy X-rays, has made numerous discoveries over the years about extreme cosmic objects, including black holes, supernova remnants, pulsars, our own fiery sun, and more.

    In this video, the mission’s principal investigator, Fiona Harrison, who is also the Harold A. Rosen Professor of Physics and the Kent and Joyce Kresa Leadership Chair of the Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy at Caltech, looks back on NuSTAR’s journey and discusses where the future may lead.

    NuSTAR poster

  13. Here’s a retrospective on a space telescope with x-ray vision.

    • Caltech Magazine > “A Decade of NuSTAR: What Its X-Ray Vision Has Taught Us” (Summer 2022) – Stars are mostly spherical, but NuSTAR observations have shown that when they explode as supernovae, they become an asymmetrical mess.

    NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR), led by Caltech and managed by JPL, turned 10 years old in June. This space telescope detects high-energy X-ray light and studies some of the most energetic objects and processes in the universe. The mission’s principal investigator is Fiona Harrison, the Harold A. Rosen Professor of Physics and the Kent and Joyce Kresa Leadership Chair of the Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy at Caltech. Here are some of the ways NuSTAR has opened our eyes over the last decade.

    Neutron star graphic

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