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Is Chandra Really Up There?

October 2, 1999 ::

CXC in orbit
2 minute exposure with a 7.5 cm aperture, F4.0 camera
Photo: G. Emerson, E.E. Barnard Observatory
Chandra in orbit
10 second exposure with a 25 cm aperture telescope. The altitude at the time was 110,000 km.
Photo: G. Emerson, E.E. Barnard Observatory
In case you wondered if Chandra is really up there, take a look at these pictures shot by Gary Emerson with a 25 cm telescope at the E.E. Barnard Observatory. Gary used an astronomical program called "The Sky" to find the spacecraft position. First he shot with a wide-angle camera and found Chandra, and then he homed in with the 25 cm telescope.

It was, according to Emerson, "The kind of night that astronomers dream of, with the Milky Way lighting the evening sky and stars visible down to the horizon. After working on the project for a couple of years, seeing Chandra that night was like seeing an old friend."

Emerson worked as a test engineer on Chandra's Charge Coupled Device (CCD) aspect camera at Ball Aerospace. The camera is used to find optical guide stars to aid in pointing the observatory. Gary grew up in Chicago, and did not plan on graduating from high school, let alone going to college, until a seventh grade teacher sparked his interest in astronomy with visits to the planetarium and nearby observatories.

Gary Emerson
Gary Emerson, E.E. Barnard Observatory
"It's so critical to have good teachers at that age," Emerson said.

Emerson's mother bought him a small telescope that he used to explore he universe from the third floor deck of their apartment. While a freshman in high school, Emerson joined the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory's Operation Moonwatch program. Like Homer Hickam, the hero of the movie "October Skies," Emerson was hooked by the sight of Sputnik orbiting overhead.

"Three days after Sputnik launched, we were able to observe the rocket body going over Chicago," Emerson says. "I was hooked. I knew I wanted to work in aerospace, although the term had not been coined yet. I just wanted to build satellites and work on all sorts of spacecraft. So here I am."

Tracking ChandraTracking Chandra
Chandra reached its orbit in three steps. First, the Space Shuttle Columbia delivered it to a low Earth orbit. Then, the Inertial Upper Stage rocket boosted Chandra up to an altitude where a built-in propulsion system took Chandra to its present orbit. This elliptical orbit takes the spacecraft to an altitude of 139,000 km (86,500 mi) - more than a third of the distance to the moon.

See for yourself just what the Chandra orbit looks like

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