Press Release

New Technology with Many Potential Applications Incorporated in NASA’s SWIFT Satellite

By SpaceRef Editor
October 18, 2001
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Big things come in tiny packages … 40,000 tiny packages of gamma ray
detectors to be exact. The 40,000 thumbtack-sized detectors were recently
delivered to the scientists building NASA’s Swift Gamma-Ray Burst Explorer.
The detectors may allow advances in medical and security imaging, also.

Swift, scheduled for a 2003 launch, will detect and accurately position
gamma ray bursts — the most energetic events seen in today’s Universe.
These cadmium-zinc-telluride (CZT) detectors are the heart of Swift’s Burst
Alert Telescope (BAT) that will enable scientists to detect and accurately
position these mysterious gamma ray bursts, which disappear within seconds,
never to appear in the same spot in the sky. A “swift” response is therefore
the only way to track down these elusive bursts, and this is the primary
goal of NASA’s Swift mission.

“This delivery is quite a milestone for both the Swift mission and the
development of CZT detector technology,” said Dr. Ann Parsons, BAT Detector
Scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md. “Since CZT
detectors are very compact and do not require expensive cryogenic cooling
systems to operate, large, densely packed arrays can be built for many
applications, including medical and security imaging as well as astronomy.
The now-proven ability to acquire such large quantities of CZT will allow us
to fly a huge BAT detector array that is sensitive enough to detect the
faintest gamma-ray bursts, presumably originating from the farthest reaches
of the cosmos.”

U.S. Rep. Melissa Hart (R, Penn.) and state officials will attend a ceremony
on October 22 marking the completion of the 40,000 detectors. The event is
hosted by the detectors’ manufacturers, eV Products Inc., in Saxonburg,
Penn. The CZT detectors will do for gamma-ray astronomy what CCD detectors
have done for X-ray and optical astronomy — that is, create high-resolution
images from high-energy photons, particles of light far more energetic than
visible light.

BAT will observe and locate hundreds of bursts per year to better than
4-arcminute accuracy and remain sensitive to faint bursts that earlier
detectors would have missed. BAT’s large size makes it the most sensitive
Gamma-ray burst detector ever made. BAT will detect bursts that are five
times fainter than the dimmest ones recorded by the trailblazing Burst and
Transient Source Experiment (BATSE) on the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory.
Data from the BAT will also produce a sensitive hard (high-energy) all-sky
survey about 100 times deeper than previous surveys; astrophysicists
estimate this capability will uncover over 400 new supermassive black holes.

Fabricating the CZT detectors was a challenge, since the materials science
technology required to produce large volumes of high-quality CZT detectors
is still maturing. Various crystallography techniques are used, and it is
difficult to grow the detectors without allowing cracks to form. There was
some concern whether the large number required by BAT could be fabricated on
time, but eV Products actually delivered them ahead of schedule.

Each CZT detector is 4 millimeters (mm) by 4 mm and 2 mm thick and will be
fitted onto the BAT array in the form of 128 modules each containing 256
detectors, totaling 32,768 (leaving about 7,000 spare detectors for
replacement.) One millimeter is approximately 0.04 inch.

BAT will relay the positions of bursts within 15 seconds to ground-based and
other space-based observatories. Swift’s other main instruments, the X-Ray
Telescope (XRT) and Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope (UVOT), will zoom in on
the BAT detection location and provide arcsecond positioning. (An arcsecond
is an area of the sky about the apparent size of a penny viewed from two
miles away.) This fine positioning information will provide for crucial
follow-up observations of the burst’s lower-energy afterglow, which can last
for days to weeks.

Swift was selected in October 1999 as a medium-class explorer mission
(MIDEX). Swift, an international collaboration with partners in Italy and
Great Britain, will launch in 2003. Swift will operate for three years
following launch, for a total cost of $163 million. Dr. Neil Gehrels from
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center is the Principal Investigator for the
Swift Mission.

Swift is a key component of NASA’s Structure and Evolution of the Universe
theme, dedicated to unraveling the mysteries of the cosmos and ensuring
future cosmic journeys.

A detailed description of Swift is available at:

SpaceRef staff editor.