General

Behind the Scenes with the Image Makers

2019 Chandra Archive Image Collection
2019 Chandra Archive Collection
Credit: Enhanced Image by Judy Schmidt (CC BY-NC-SA) based on
images provided courtesy of NASA/CXC/SAO & NASA/STScI.

It is both an art and a science to make images of objects from space. Most astronomical images are composed of light that humans cannot detect with their eyes. Instead, the data from telescopes like NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory are “translated,” so to speak, into a form that we can understand. This process is done following strict guidelines to ensure scientific accuracy while trying to achieve the highest levels of aesthetics possible.

Over the two decades of the Chandra mission, we have had many talented people who have been involved with making our publicly-released images. We interviewed our current team and share some of their answers to questions posed to all of them below. Kim Arcand is Chandra’s visualization lead and has been with the mission since before launch; Nancy Wolk has been involved with Chandra’s data analysis, software, and spacecraft science operations before joining the image processing team; Lisa Frattare spent years making images from the Hubble Space Telescope before switching career gears but continues to lend her expertise part-time to Chandra’s efforts; Judy Schmidt is a citizen scientist who spends some of her free time using public data to make gorgeous images of space, including those featured in our latest release.

Exploring New Paths of Study with Chandra

Chandra spacecraft image
Illustration: Chandra X-ray Observatory

We make progress in astrophysics in a variety of ways. There is the sort that starts along a defined path, driven by meticulous proposals for telescope time or detailed science justifications for new missions. The plan is to advance knowledge by traveling further than others, or clearing a broader path. And then there are others.

A big mission like NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory begins with plans for investigation along a slew of different directions and lines of study. At the time of Chandra's launch on July 23rd, 1999, scientists thought these paths would mainly follow studies of galaxy clusters, dark matter, black holes, supernovas, and young stars. Indeed, in the last 20 years we've learned about black holes ripping stars apart (reported eg in 2004, 2011 and 2017), about a black hole generating the deepest known note in the universe, about dark matter being wrenched apart from normal matter in the famous Bullet Cluster and similar objects, about the discovery of the youngest supernova remnant in our galaxy, and much more.

Gearing Up for Chandra’s 20th

Launch

Beginning in less than a month, we will be celebrating the 20th anniversary of the launch of NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory into space. To get Chandra-philes (Chandra-ites?) ready and bring new ones into the fold, we have been busy here at the Chandra X-ray Center preparing a slew of activities, products, and more to usher in our favorite X-ray telescope’s third decade of operation. Here are just a few of the things to look forward to this year:

  • Launching with yet more content soon, a special section of the website devoted to the Chandra’s 20thanniversary. (Keep an eye on the calendar of events list for potential opportunities in your area to speak with Chandra scientists.)
  • A collection of new Chandra images will be released twenty years to the day – July 23rd– that the Space Shuttle Columbia launched Chandra into orbit.

New Chandra Operations Control Center Opens

Chandra's New Operations Control Center
Chandra's New Operations Control Center

A new state-of-the-art facility that will operate NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory has opened. This new Operations Control Center, or OCC, will help Chandra continue its highly efficient performance as NASA's premier X-ray observatory.

As the name suggests, the OCC controls the operation of the Chandra spacecraft while it is in orbit, as scientists and engineers design plans for efficiently and safely observing its targets.

Two years before Chandra's launch into space in 1999, NASA awarded the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory a contract to establish the first OCC as part of the Chandra X-ray Center, under the direction of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center. Northrup Grumman was and continues to be a prime contractor for Chandra, employing many staff members at the OCC.

Elaine Jiang

Elaine Jiang
Elaine Jiang

My name is Elaine Jiang, and I am a current senior at Brown University studying computer science. I spent the first nine years of my life in Suffern, New York, and the following nine years in Shanghai, China, before coming back to the states for college. In terms of technology, I’m interested in artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality, and ethical software design. Outside of computer science, I can be found teaching and mentoring students in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM), going to spin classes, and exploring Providence's delicious brunch options.

My parents have always encouraged me to explore my interests in science and technology. When we lived in upstate New York, one of my favorite memories was going to the Museum of Natural History with my dad every year, looking at fossils and animals, and jotting down notes in my “science journal.” I’m really grateful to have been exposed to science at a young age, as this certainly led to my interest in becoming a STEM major.

During the summer after my sophomore year in college, I had the opportunity to do research with Tom Sgouros, who managed Brown’s Yurt Ultimate Reality Theatre. Tom introduced me to Kim Arcand from the Chandra X-ray Observatory, and we worked with her to render a three-dimensional model of supernova remnant Cassiopeia A into virtual reality. It’s been an incredibly rewarding experience, and I’m excited to see what we do next.

Chandra to Continue Operations During US Government Shutdown

Chandra Spacecraft

NASA has designated Chandra as "excepted" during the Government shutdown and requested that SAO continue Chandra X-ray Center (CXC) operations. Since NASA is unable to provide funding during the shutdown, the Smithsonian Institution has agreed to advance funding to continue science and mission operations through mid-March, as necessary.

A Hero of the Heroic Age of Astronomy

Riccardo Giacconi (1931-2018)

Riccardo Giacconi
Riccardo Giacconi speaking at a Chandra Symposium in 2003. Credit: NASA/MSFC

Riccardo Giacconi, the "Father of X-ray Astronomy," Nobel prize-winner, and one of the most influential figures of modern astrophysics, has died at the age of 87.

Giacconi was born in Genoa Italy on October 6, 1931. He spent most of his life until 1956 in Milan, where he obtained a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Milan, working under the direction of noted cosmic ray physicist Giuseppe Ochialini. Giacconi subsequently worked as an assistant professor at the University of Milan before emigrating to the United States to work for R.W. Thompson as a Fulbright Fellow at Indiana University.

From Indiana he moved to Princeton where he met and worked with Herbert Gursky, also a post-doctoral fellow. According to Giacconi, "We built equipment, worked like fiends, analyzed data, and declared failure." When his Fulbright fellowship expired, Giacconi moved to American Science and Engineering (AS&E) in Cambridge, MA, a startup formed by Martin Annis, an ex-student of Bruno Rossi of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). At that time AS&E was primarily involved in military space research.

Remembering Riccardo Giacconi, X-Ray Astronomy Pioneer

Courtesy of NASA.gov

Riccardo Giacconi
Riccardo Giacconi (Credit: R.K. Morris)

NASA is saddened to note the passing of Riccardo Giacconi, who had a long and illustrious career with the agency.

“Riccardo set the standard for the way that NASA astrophysics is done, by involving the entire astronomy community in space missions via robust Guest Observer programs. We continue to benefit from his foresight,” said Paul Hertz, Director of Astrophysics at NASA.

Giacconi’s early sounding rocket work opened the field of X-ray astronomy, in which NASA continues to be a world leader. He led the sounding rocket experiment that discovered the first two non-solar cosmic X-ray sources: the X-ray background and the neutron star Scorpius X-1. This breakthrough led Giacconi to propose to NASA the Small Astronomy Satellite-A or SAS-A, renamed “Uhuru” at launch. The satellite produced the first catalog of cosmic X-ray sources.

He went on to develop the first focusing X-ray telescope, the Einstein Observatory, and then to write the proposal for NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory. Chandra continues to operate today, and is the most sensitive X-ray observatory ever developed.

NASA was delighted when Giacconi won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2002 “for pioneering contributions to astrophysics, which have led to the discovery of cosmic X-ray sources.”

Giacconi was also the first permanent director of the Space Telescope Science Institute (STScI) in Baltimore, Maryland. Under his leadership from 1981 to 1993, STScI developed the expertise and capabilities to direct the science mission of the Hubble Space Telescope.

Happy 40th Birthday, Einstein Observatory

HEAO 2/Einstein Observatory
Einstein Observatory/HEAO 2

On November 13, 1978, the High Energy Astrophysical Observatory 2 (HEAO-2) blasted into space from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Renamed the Einstein Observatory after it was successfully placed into orbit, this was the first fully imaging telescope dedicated to looking at X-rays beyond the Sun.

The Einstein Observatory and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO), part of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., are forever linked. The telescope was conceived, proposed to NASA, run by, and its data processed by SAO. The original conception for Einstein came from a group at the American Science & Engineering company, led by Nobel Prize-winner Riccardo Giacconi, which moved to SAO in 1973. SAO’s Leon van Speybroeck, who would later become the Telescope Scientist for Chandra, designed the telescope for Einstein.

In addition to being the first X-ray telescope capable of making images, Einstein was an extremely important mission for other reasons. For example, the Einstein Observatory set aside about a quarter of its observing time for a “Guest Observer” program. SAO’s Fred Seward headed the Guest Observer program and ensured an open, competitive process that enabled scientists who were not part of the original consortium to propose observations and to analyze Einstein data.

Playing it Safe: Chandra's Return to Science Observations

PS 01247+4630
Credit: NASA/CXC/Trinity University/D. Pooley et al.

On October 10th, NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory went into “safe mode,” following a glitch on one of the telescope’s gyroscopes. After hard work by the team at the Chandra X-ray Center, the problem was identified and solved, allowed Chandra to resume science observations less than two weeks later on October 21st.

One of the first targets that Chandra looked at after its return to science was PS 0147+4630, a gravitationally-lensed quasar. What is that exactly? A quasar is a supermassive black hole that is rapidly consuming gas from its surroundings. The gas falls into a disk around the black hole where it becomes hot and generates prodigious amounts of radiation. Gravitational lensing is a phenomenon, first predicted by Einstein, where light from a very distant source is bent by a massive intervening object, such as a large galaxy or a galaxy cluster. This creates multiple images of a single, faraway object and amplifies the brightness of the light, acting in some ways as a natural magnifying glass.

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