Press Release

NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory marks two years of important discoveries

By SpaceRef Editor
September 4, 2001
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NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, one of the world’s most powerful
tools to better understand the structure and evolution of the universe,
marks its two-year anniversary with a series of discoveries that transcend
space and time.

In recent months, Chandra has found the most distant X-ray cluster
of galaxies, captured the deepest X-ray images ever recorded and discovered
a new size of black hole.

“It seems like yesterday we launched Chandra and awaited with great
anticipation for what it would tell us about the universe,” said Chandra
project scientist Dr. Martin Weisskopf of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight
Center in Huntsville, Ala.

“It has lived up to all our hopes, giving us front-row seats to
phenomena light years away — exotic celestial objects, matter falling into
black holes and stellar explosions.”

Based on the observatory’s outstanding results to-date, a
decision to extend Chandra’s mission to a ten-year-mission compared to the
original five-year-mission was made by NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C.
The extended mission will support five additional years of day-to-day
operations such as controlling the spacecraft, observing celestial targets,
processing the data, and passing it on to scientists around the globe. It
also includes continuing the administration of hundreds of science grants
for astronomers to analyze their data and publish their results.

“Adding five more years of operation to Chandra’s mission will
provide double the opportunity for amazing discoveries,” said Weisskopf.

Among the noteworthy Chandra contributions in the last two years is
the discovery of the most distant X-ray cluster of galaxies. Approximately
10 billion light-years from Earth, the cluster 3C294 is 40 percent farther
than the next distant X-ray galaxy cluster. Important for understanding how
the universe evolved, this discovery is helping astronomers see what the
universe was like when it was only about one-fifth of its current age.

Offering proof that black holes once ruled the universe, Chandra has
also provided the deepest X-ray images ever recorded. Known as the Chandra
Deep Fields, the images show an early universe 12 billion years ago that was
teeming with black holes. These X-ray sources – the faintest ever detected
– are giving astronomers the opportunity to look back to a time when the
universe was young, shedding insight into the early structure of galaxies.

For additional insight into black holes, Chandra offers new evidence
that the universe is home to a type of black hole that’s not too large and
not too small. This discovery – a mid-sized black hole in the M82 galaxy –
may represent the missing link between its flyweight relatives formed by the
stellar collapse of single, massive stars and the super-heavyweight variety
found at the center of most galaxies.

These recent discoveries follow numerous groundbreaking findings
made during Chandra’s first year. Those initial highlights include
Chandra’s discovery of a “cool” black hole at the heart of the Andromeda
Galaxy and an X-ray ring around the Crab Nebula.

“Over the last two years, Chandra has performed its mission
superbly,” said Chandra Program Manager Tony Lavoie at NASA’s Marshall
Center. “Not only is the observatory operating smoothly and efficiently,
providing the highest quality X-ray images ever made, but the astronomical
community is ecstatic with the results.

“The teamwork on the program has been outstanding, with a strong
focus to satisfy the customer and streamline wherever possible. I’m proud
to be associated with the program” said Lavoie, “and look forward to many
more years of producing data that yields science breakthroughs seemingly
from every glance at our universe.”

X-ray astronomy can only be performed from space because Earth’s
atmosphere blocks X-rays from reaching the surface. The Chandra Observatory
travels one-third of the way to the Moon during its orbit around the Earth
every 64 hours. At its highest point, Chandra’s highly elliptical, or
egg-shaped, orbit is 200 times higher than that of its
visible-light-gathering sister, the Hubble Space Telescope.

The Marshall Center manages the Chandra program, and TRW, Inc. of
Redondo Beach, Calif., is the prime contractor for the spacecraft. The
Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s Chandra X-ray Center controls
science and flight operations from Cambridge, Mass.
Images associated with this release are available at:

http://chandra.harvard.edu

and

http://chandra.nasa.gov

SpaceRef staff editor.