Monday, February 15, 2016

ASTRO-H space observatory poised for launch from Japan

An international space observatory designed to perform astronomical observations of the universe using several advanced X-ray telescopes is poised to lift-off on Wednesday from its seaside launch site near southern Japan.

The ASTRO-H observatory will investigate the make up of the universe, including long standing questions, 'how do black holes develop and how are galaxy clusters created?'. The spacecraft will will look deep into space to learn the evolution and structure of the universe.

Designed and built by an international collaboration led by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, or JAXA, over 70 institutions contributed to the ASTRO-H observatory in the U.S., Canada and Europe. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center and the European Space Agency will collaborate by using a few of the four ASTRO-H x-ray instruments.

"ASTRO-H is capable of observing X-ray sources, like galaxy clusters and neutron stars, more than 10 times fainter than its predecessor, Suzaku, which operated (until) 2015," NASA spokesperson Francis Reddy said. "To achieve this, ASTRO-H uses four co-aligned focusing X-ray telescopes and a suite of cutting-edge instruments that provide simultaneous coverage across the observatory's entire energy range."

The X-ray images from ASTRO-H are expected to be more dynamic than the visible light photographs from past space based observatories. JAXA scientists have confirmed that one X-ray photon has between 10,000 to 100,000 times the energy of optical photons.

"We see X-rays from sources throughout the universe, wherever the particles in matter reach sufficiently high energies," Goddard's X-ray Astrophysics Laboratory chief and ASTRO-H project scientist Robert Petre said. "These energies arise in a variety of settings including stellar explosions, extreme magnetic fields or strong gravity; and X-rays let us probe aspects of these phenomena that are inaccessible by instruments observing at other wavelengths."

Two of the space telescope's mirrors and and instrument package were built and tested at Goddard. In all, ASTRO-H will operate with two X-ray telescopes, two X-ray imagers, an X-ray spectrometer and a Gamma-ray detector.

Japan's HIIA rocket is scheduled to lift-off from the Tanegashima Space Center on February 17 at 3:45 a.m. EST (08:45 GMT). The launch window is 45 minutes and will air live on JAXA's web site. Launch was delayed from last Friday due to wintery weather expected over the small island Tanegashima located south of Japan.

Japan's primary large-scale rocket, H-IIA will lift-off with 402 tons of thrust as its core LE-7 main engine and twin solid rocket boosters ignite at twilight. Fifty seconds later, the 50-meter long rocket will pass the speed of sound as it darts eastward over the waters of the north Pacific Ocean.

Fourteen minutes after launch, the spacecraft is expected to separate from the upper stage. Minutes later, ASTRO-H energy producing solar arrays will begin to deploy, and the craft will maneuver to its planned orientation to begin producing its first images.

The 2.7 ton spacecraft will operate from an altitude of 357 miles, or 575 km, above the planet during its planned three year life. ASTRO-H circular orbit inclined 31 degrees to the equator will carry it around Earth once every 95 minutes.

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