By Barbara Kennedy and Michael Siegel, Penn State
STATE COLLEGE, – A large new collection of space photos taken at wavelengths that are invisible to the human eye and blocked by Earth’s atmosphere has been released as a New Year’s gift to the people of Earth by NASA and Penn State University. The images were captured by a telescope on board NASA’s Swift satellite, whose science and flight operations are controlled by Penn State from the Mission Operations Center in State College, Pa., using the Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope, which resulted from Penn State’s collaboration with the Mullard Space Science Laboratory of the University College-London. The telescope is one of just a few that study ultraviolet light, much of which is blocked by the atmosphere surrounding Earth
“This extensive image gallery has some of the best pictures ever taken by this telescope, including some very early images that have not been published until now,” said Michael Siegel, a Penn State research associate in astronomy and astrophysics who is the lead scientist for the Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope. The image gallery is online, and it also can be viewed with the free Swift Explorer Mission iPhone app developed by Penn State.
The image gallery includes images from Siegel’s study of the Omega Centauri star cluster, Penn State research associate Erik Hoversten’s studies of galaxies near to our Milky Way Galaxy, and NASA Astronomer Stefan Immler’s work on the early images captured by the Swift observatory. “We intend to keep updating the gallery about once a month with new images from Swift as well as an interesting collection of images that document stages in Swift’s preparation for launch into space,” Siegel said. “We also plan to continue adding spectacular images from several new long-term studies of the Small Magellanic Cloud and the Large Magellanic Cloud.”
In addition to Siegel and Hoverstein, other current and former Penn State members of the image-gallery team include undergraduate students Joshua Berrier, Emmanuel Fonseca and Blair Porterfield; research assistant Michael Stroh; and research associate Jamie Kennea.
The Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope (UVOT) is the only one of the three telescopes on Swift that captures cosmic light at energies at and just beyond those that can be seen by the human eye. It plays a critical role in rapidly pinpointing the locations of gamma-ray bursts (GRBs), the brightest explosions in the universe. Swift has detected an average of about 90 GRBs a year since its launch in 2004. “When we are not studying GRBs, we use the satellite’s unique capabilities to engage in other scientific investigations, some of which produce these beautiful images from the UVOT that we’re now delighted to be able to share with the public,” Siegel said. The targets for these studies range from comets and star clusters to supernova remnants, nearby galaxies and active galaxies powered by supermassive black holes.
“One of our more challenging projects was completing an ultraviolet mosaic of M31, the famous Andromeda galaxy,” said Stefan Immler, a member of the Swift team at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “Because the galaxy is so much larger than the UVOT’s field of view, we had to take dozens of pictures and blend them together to show the whole object.”
Because most ultraviolet light never reaches the ground, Swift’s Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope provides a unique perspective on the cosmos. For example, it can measure the amount of water produced in passing comets by detecting the ultraviolet emission of hydroxyl (OH), one of the molecular fragments created when ultraviolet sunlight breaks up water molecules. Other types of science with the telescope include exploring emissions from the centers of active galaxies, studying regions undergoing star formation, and identifying some of the rarest and most exotic stars known.
With Swift’s Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope, astronomers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and Penn State have cataloged hundreds of rare types of stars and are now comparing their observations with theoretical models in order to advance the understanding of how stars evolve. “The Swift Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope’s capabilities give us a great tool for cataloging rare types of ultraviolet-bright stars and for surveying stellar populations throughout the universe,” Siegel said.
ABOUT SWIFT’S ULTRAVIOLET/OPTICAL TELESCOPE
The UVOT’s wavelength range is 1,700 to 6,000 angstroms. The 6.5-foot-long (2-meter) UVOT is centered on an 11.8-inch (30 cm) primary mirror. Designed and built by the Mullard Space Science Laboratory in Surrey, England, the telescope module includes the primary and secondary mirrors, an external baffle to reduce scattered light, two redundant detectors — only one has been used to date — and a power supply.
Each detector lies behind an identical filter wheel. The wheel holds color filters that transmit a broad range of wavelengths as well as devices called grisms, which spread out incoming light in much the same way as a prism spreads sunlight into a rainbow of component colors. The detectors retain information on the position and arrival time of each photon of light, an operating mode similar to typical X-ray telescopes.
The Swift observatory was launched in November 2004 and was fully operational by January 2005. Swift carries three main instruments: the Burst Alert Telescope, the X-ray Telescope and the Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope. Its science and flight operations are controlled by Penn State from the Mission Operations Center in State College, Pa. Swift’s gamma-ray detector, the Burst Alert Telescope, provides the rapid initial location and was built primarily by the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and constructed at GSFC. Swift’s X-Ray Telescope and UV/Optical Telescope were developed and built by international teams led by Penn State and drew heavily on each institution’s experience with previous space missions. The X-ray Telescope resulted from Penn State’s collaboration with the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom and the Brera Astronomical Observatory in Italy. The Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope resulted from Penn State’s collaboration with the Mullard Space Science Laboratory of the University College-London. These three telescopes give Swift the ability to do almost immediate follow-up observations of most gamma-ray bursts because Swift can rotate so quickly to point toward the source of the gamma-ray signal. The spacecraft was built by Spectrum Astro, which became part of General Dynamics and then part of Orbital Sciences Corp.