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Recent Podcast
A Tour of GW170817
A Tour of GW170817
Astronomers have used NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory to make the first X-ray detection of a gravitational wave source. (2017-10-16)


Chandra - 15 Years and Counting

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12, 11, 10, 9 launch sound, 8, 7, 6;

Oh, it was very exciting, it was the only one I have ever seen. It was at 12:30 in the morning; so it was dark. My daughter who is older was awake and knew what was going on, my son was asleep and we woke him up just to see the launch.

Ignition and lift-off of Columbia, reaching new heights for women and X-ray astronomy.

When I stood there 3 plus miles away, at the viewing stand, and the shuttle engines lit off, you could hear the roar and my shirt was vibrating.

Most of the people who had come down to watch the launch, we launched that was it. Everything was great. For us of course it was a very very big step, because now Chandra was off into space. But until we saw x-rays coming through and everything worked we really couldn't be too overconfident or relaxed or assured of success.

Nothing as beautiful as Chandra trailing off on its way to work.

Control room sounds.

I felt ecstatic, I felt unbelievably ecstatic, and when we saw those first x-rays at the minute the first time the door opened and I could see they were being focused more or less into the right area, I just broke into the biggest smile you've ever seen.

We looked at Cas A, supernova remnant of a star that exploded about 300 years ago, it's the neutron star the core of the star, exploded, collapses and forms a neutron star. And we made that discovery in this official first light image as well. We were very excited.

That was an extraordinary time, I think when I first realized the telescope was working, I had a real sense of relief, a real sense of elation, because of all the hard work that had gone on. Um, I was incredibly proud- because of the team- and being part of that team!

So the requirement was you had to work for three years and the goal was five.

We're 15 years into our 5 year lifetime… that's not too bad (laughs).

Sound effect and music.

So many people have contributed much of their careers to the success of the Chandra mission and we're just continuing to reap the benefits of those sacrifices that they made, and the excellent science return that we are seeing from the mission. And we hope those continue for years to come.

So if you want to find Black Holes you wanna use an X-ray telescope.

From various astronomical observatories, in space and on the ground, in particular Chandra being a major player, we’ve determined that most galaxies that are as massive as our Milky Way or more have what we call a SMBH in the center of the galaxy. Super Massive means that they weigh in at anywhere between a million to 10 Billion times the mass of our own sun.

What we are tending to find is that the cluster of galaxies, have a bright central galaxy in the middle, it is often and active galaxy or a quasar. So a Super Massive Black Hole in the middle of a galaxy, because when the cluster is forming a lot of the material tends to fall towards the middle… so you get the biggest galaxy in the middle. So you have cool material falling in forming stars, eventually some of that gets to the BH, the Black Hole can’t take it all in, so some of it is blown out in radio jets. That heats up the material that is coming back down. So there is a kind of feedback loop between the growing black hole in the middle and the star formation that is happening in the cluster itself.

Sound effect.

We have known about the existence of dark matter for a long time, it used to be called missing matter, but now it’s just dark matter because we know that it is there. We know this in a number of different ways. So Chandra’s discovery of some things like the Bullet Cluster, is not a great surprise but this is a situation, one of these train wrecks that you can see and you can see these galaxies collided with one another. And what is happening is very interesting and shows the presence of Dark Matter in a beautiful way.

What we have now seen, when there are two clusters that have passed through each other and the gas got stripped out and Dark Matter kept going. So they have actually enabled us really the only opportunity in the Universe that I’m aware of to clearly separate the existence of Dark Matter, which then you can detect by this thing called gravitational lens effect and the gas. And so this is like a key scientific discovery to understand the nature of dark matter versus normal matter in the universe.

And that’s a very beautiful image, for me it is beautiful because it combines together data from Chandra, Hubble Space Telescope as well as the Magellan telescope, a very powerful ground based telescope. And it really shows form me how Chandra’s science can be very powerful in multi-wavelength space.

Sound effect. 

An important discovery in astronomy and astrophysics was the discovery of Dark Energy and that is that the Universe is accelerating apart. What people are trying to do using various different techniques and again in all the different wavelength bands is to measure the parameters to characterize the Dark Energy. Chandra and X-ray astronomy is playing an important role in these measurements. Well the Universe evolves differently, it’s not the same Universe we’re in without it. I think that’s most important and secondly if we are ever going to try and understand cosmology, that is the growth and evolution of the Universe, these are important constraints- boundary conditions- that have to be satisfied by any model that you may have.

I usually make the mistake of saying Dark Energy didn’t exist at the time that we designed Chandra, well of course it existed, we didn’t know of the existence of Dark Matter when we designed Chandra. So you see the power of an observatory, an observatory like Chandra with a state-of-the-art telescope and these imaging and spectroscopic capabilities of its science instruments can do things that maybe weren’t even things you planned on doing because you didn’t know about them at the time. A lot of science falls into that category.

Sound effect.

Yeah, the Universe is a big big place (laughs). I think in this mature phase what we can do which would have been harder to do in the early years, when you want to look at a lot of different things and satisfy a lot of observers is taking really longer exposures.

Chandra has very sharp vision but if you don’t look for very long you don’t capture many photons and so you can’t really populate that digital image with much detail. But if we stare at that one region for really long time we gather so many photons that we can really understand the subtleties, we can see thousands of stars. We can understand how they change with time. We can look at the full zoo of denizens in star forming regions. We’re in the middle of a two million second observation with Chandra of something called 30 Duradus, the Tarancula Nebula. We have only got a million seconds so far, we see hundreds of stars, some of them are very unusual and look like they are interacting binaries. We see strange diffuse shock emissions we don’t even understand yet.

Another thing we can do with Chandra is to look wider so we can mapping regions that are degrees across on the sky; very complex fields. We’ve done this once already with the great nebula in Carina. We mapped the Carina star forming complex, from that we found over 14,000 young stars and we find a distributed population of young stars as well as these dense clusters. We also see an amazing array of diffuse x-ray emission.

If we look at them in the optical what we see is a lot of galaxies, very pretty, if we look in the X-ray, we see the hot gas, which is actually much more of the material in the cluster- about 10X more than the material in the galaxies… and that surrounds those galaxies.

So many people that have been important to success, continued success of Chandra. Obviously at the head of the list goes Riccardo Giacconi he conceived of this, need for this observatory 9 months after he discovered the first x-ray source, Scorpius X 1. He discovered that in 1962, so that was in 1963. You have to mention Leon Van Speybroeck, the Chandra telescope scientist whose brilliance and understanding of X-ray optics was such an important factor in being able to build this telescope. And coming up with techniques, how to do it, that weren’t going to break the bank. Yet solved the problems we encountered. When we started Chandra we did not know how to build it. We knew the science we wanted to do. This was a purely science driven program.

Chandra X-ray Center has a very strong team; that works very well as a team. The biggest amount of credit that goes for building that team goes to recently retired director Harvey Tananbaum. Who was really maybe the mother of Chandra, all the way along. Sheparded through the original process to get it approved and built the X-ray Center team. 

So it was incredibly well built. It was designed with very robust and reliable parts. The science instruments were basically new and the telescope was certainly state of the art. We tested the heck out of things in the lab, before delivering, we tested at Marshall during the calibration, there was testing during full up integration. There were some problems, there were some issues, we fixed everything we could find. I think we had again from a team perspective, we had great leadership at Marshall and throughout all of the contractors and the science team involved.

So by all of these metrics Chandra is one of the most productive missions that there have been scientifically. And we are working extremely hard to maintain those levels.

Looking at all the components in detail their condition now versus their condition at launch versus their projection of how long they can last up there, and no show stoppers came up in that study. And all the things the engineering team could be doing to mitigate aging, are already being done.

Flight Ops team and the Science Ops team they continue to work together to really perform, to maximize our science while maintaining and protecting the health and safety of the vehicle.

We do have an extraordinary team and they have worked together since the beginning of the mission and right through development before that, it includes the ground control team, the science center, the flight operations team, the science instruments teams, the factory support from Northrup Grumman and our colleages at Marshall Space Flight Center. 

The quality of the science with Chandra, I think the legacy will be that really serious science. It was in there toe to toe with all the other branches of astronomy and astrophysics; pushing the envelope. 

Everything we look at is high drama in space and it's a lot of fun.

Well I think Chandra's Legacy will be profound. Huge archive of Chandra observations continues to be used and new things come out of it. The cleverness of the scientific community can't be underrated. People are smart and they have ideas and they run the range from studying the interaction of exo-planets with their nearby stars and that influence on the planets themselves; an interesting topic of it's own, to what is out there in the deep fields. We are going to increase the amount of observing time, and I anticipate depending on the outcome of that we may go even deeper. You never know what you are going to see if you haven't seen it before. So this is the same thing I said before launch, I said I can tell you about 25 things that this observatory is going to do that are absolutely fantastic science and they will be dwarfed by the 25 things that I couldn't tell you about, because if I could tell you about them my name would be Ricardo Giaconni or somebody like him and I would be sitting somewhere else with my Nobel Prize. I think it is proven confidence that Chandra will continue to make outstanding discoveries because it is so unique.

Music and sound effect.
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