Press Release

NOVA Features Penn State Space Scientists on 31 October

By SpaceRef Editor
October 30, 2006
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Penn State scientists and engineers working with NASA’s Swift space observatory will be featured as part of a new NOVA program that will debut at 8:00 p.m. Eastern time on Tuesday, 31 October 2006 (check local listings). The program documents how astrophysicists are closing in on the proof they have sought for years, that one of the most destructive objects in the universe-a supermassive black hole-is lurking at the center of our own galaxy. “Could it flare up and consume our entire galactic neighborhood?” is one of the questions explored during NOVA’s mind-bending investigation into one of the most bizarre corners of cosmological science: black-hole research.

The program reveals elusive secrets of supermassive black holes through stunning computer-generated imagery, including an extraordinary simulation of what it might look like to fall into the belly of such an all-devouring beast. A companion web site for the broadcast is at

A NOVA video crew visited Penn State earlier this year to film scientists working at the control center for the Swift satellite, which is dedicated to studying the formation of black holes throughout the universe. Penn State controls Swift’s science and flight operations for NASA from the Penn State Mission Operations Center, and Penn State led in the development and assembly of two of Swift’s three telescopes. Swift is a unique, multifaceted satellite that is designed to observe gamma-ray bursts, the most powerful explosions known, which appear to be caused by the birth of distant black holes.

“Because of Swift’s lightning-fast reactions, we have confirmed the origin of gamma-ray bursts, helped pinpoint the birth of a special kind of black hole, detected the most distant explosion ever, and even watched the Deep Impact probe smash into comet Tempel 1 . . . and that was just during Swift’s first year in space,” said John Nousek, professor of astronomy and astrophysics, who is director of the Mission Operations Center. “I can’t think of any other satellite as versatile.”

Gamma-ray bursts appear randomly from any direction in the sky and last only a few milliseconds to about a minute. An afterglow in lower-energy light may linger for a few days, but the trick is to know where to point the telescope in order to observe these lingering fireworks from the massive explosion. Swift’s novelty lies in its ability to detect fast-fading bursts, to turn autonomously to observe a burst in detail, and to relay the burst coordinates to other telescopes on Earth and in space, all within seconds.

As a result of Swift’s discoveries and follow-up observations by other observatories, most scientists now agree that gamma-ray bursts can arise from the explosion of a massive star, or from a collision between a neutron star and a black hole, or from a collision between a neutron star and another neutron star. Regardless of the scenario, the result is a new black hole whose birth cries begin with a powerful burst of gamma-rays. “We are detecting and rapidly imaging two bursts per week with Swift,” said Neil Gehrels of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, who is the principal investigator for Swift. “It is mind boggling how much we are learning from these gamma-ray flashes from the early days of the universe.”

Gamma-ray-burst discoveries eventually may lead to even more kinds of groundbreaking scientific achievements, such as mapping the location of the first stars that formed in the universe; understanding the true merger rate for black holes with neutron stars; or helping in the detection of exotic gravitational waves, which are predicted by Einstein’s theories but have not yet been detected.

Approximately twenty-nine scientists, engineers, students, and staff work at the Penn State Mission Operations Center, including Nousek; Peter Mészáros, Holder of the Eberly Family Chair in Astronomy and Astrophysics, who is head of the Swift science team; David Burrows, senior Scientist and professor of astronomy and astrophysics, who is the lead scientist for Swift’s X-Ray Telescope; and Peter Roming, senior research associate and lead scientist for Swift’s ultraviolet and optical telescope.

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  • John Nousek (Penn State): 814-863-1937,
  • Neil Gehrels (NASA): 301-286-6546,
  • Peter Mészáros (Penn State): 814-865-0418,
  • David N. Burrows (Penn State): 814-865-7707,
  • Peter Roming (Penn State): 814-865-7745,
  • Lynn Cominsky (Swift PIO): 707-664-2655,
  • Barbara K. Kennedy (Penn State (PIO): 814-863-4682,


Swift is an award-winning medium-class NASA explorer mission in partnership with the Italian Space Agency and the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council in the United Kingdom. NASA Goddard manages the satellite, and Penn State controls its science and flight operations from the Mission Operations Center in State College, Pennsylvania. The spacecraft was built in collaboration with national laboratories, universities and international partners, including Penn State University; Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico; Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, California; Mullard Space Science Laboratory in Dorking, Surrey, England; the University of Leicester, England; Brera Observatory in Milan; and ASI Science Data Center in Frascati, Italy.

Swift 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. 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 and Los Alamos National Laboratory 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 England and the Brera Astronomical Observatory in Italy, and the Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope from a 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.

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SpaceRef staff editor.