Press Release

Swift Satellite Hailed as “Best of What’s New” in Popular Science

By SpaceRef Editor
November 9, 2005
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Swift Satellite Hailed as “Best of What’s New” in Popular Science

The NASA Swift satellite has received a “Best of What’s New” award from Popular Science magazine in the aviation-and-space category. The satellite will be featured in the December 2005 issue of the magazine. Penn State controls Swift’s science and flight operations for NASA and led in the development and assembly of two of Swift’s three telescopes. Swift is a unique, multifaceted satellite dedicated to understanding gamma-ray bursts, the most powerful explosions known.

“It’s great to know that Popular Science is as excited about our nifty new observatory as we are,” said Swift Mission Director John Nousek, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State. “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. 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 and satellites all within seconds.

“Before Swift, it took hours and sometimes days to find and observe a gamma-ray burst afterglow,” said Neil Gehrels of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, who is the principal investigator for Swift. David Burrows, Senior Scientist and Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State, who is the lead scientist for Swift’s X-Ray Telescope, adds “We now have the lag time down to about a minute. It is little wonder that Swift is making one discovery after another.”

As a result of Swift’s discoveries and follow-up observations by other observatories, most scientists now agree that longer bursts arise from massive star explosions while shorter bursts are the product of collisions between a neutron star and a black hole or another neutron star. Regardless of the scenario, the collision produces a new black hole whose birth cries begin with a powerful burst of gamma-rays.

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 is the Burst Alert Telescope, built primarily by the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Penn State led the design and construction of the X-ray Telescope, with partners at the University of Leicester in England and the Brera Astronomical Observatory in Italy. Penn State lead the design and construction of the UV/Optical Telescope, with its partners at 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.

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.

“The Best of What’s New is the ultimate Popular Science accolade, representing a year’s worth of work evaluating thousands of products,” said Mark Jannot, Popular Science editor. “The awards honor innovations that not only influence the way we live, but change the way we think about the future.”

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



— John Nousek, director of the Swift Mission Operations Center and professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State: 814-863-1937,

— Neil Gehrels, Swift principal investigator at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center: 301-286-6546,

–David Burrows, lead scientist for Swift’s X-ray telescope and a senior scientist and professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State: 814 863-2466,

— Peter Mészáros, head of the Swift science team and Holder of the Eberly Family Chair in Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State: 814-863-4167,

— Derek Fox, assistant professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State: 814-863-4989,

SpaceRef staff editor.