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Celebrating X-Ray Astronomy — Chandra

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

4 thoughts on “Celebrating X-Ray Astronomy — Chandra

  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).

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