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Penn State Research Team Wins Satellite Competition

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A team of scientists from the Penn State Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics is part of a collaboration that was selected yesterday by NASA to build the next MIDEX Explorer satellite. The satellite, called the Swift Gamma Ray Burst Explorer, is scheduled to be launched in 2003 to study gamma ray bursts — intensely brilliant flashes of gamma radiation that briefly outshine every other object in the sky — at gamma ray, X-ray, and visible wavelengths. The total cost of the Swift satellite is $163 million, with $26 million being spent at Penn State over the next seven years.

The Swift satellite consists of three coaligned telescopes, designed to make images of the sky in gamma rays, X-rays, and optical/ultraviolet light. The Burst Alert Telescope is responsible for detecting gamma ray bursts. When a burst, whose typical duration is only a few seconds, has been identified, the satellite will rapidly redirect the X-ray and optical telescopes. These telescopes will provide sharp images of the gamma ray source burst and pinpoint its location in the sky. Swift is expected to discover a new gamma ray source every day during its three year mission.

"Gamma ray bursts have been one of the leading mysteries of astrophysics for the past 30 years," said John Nousek, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State. "We are delighted to be part of the mission that will answer many of the questions surrounding these enormous bursts of energy from the edge of the universe." The Penn State team is responsible for building and testing the X-ray and UV/optical telescopes, operating the satellite after launch from a control center to be located at Penn State, and overseeing the education and public outreach program. In addition to Nousek, Principal Investigator at Penn State, other faculty members from the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics involved with the project are David Burrows, Eric Feigelson, Gordon Garmire, Peter Meszaros, Donald Schneider, W. N. Brandt, Margaret Chester, Joanne Hill, Peter Roming, and Leisa Townsley. With engineers and technicians the total Swift team at Penn State includes nearly 30 people.

The Education/Public Outreach program will produce educational materials to be used in schools across the country, designed to explain space astronomy to school teachers and students and give them a taste of the excitement of scientific discovery. The first products of this program have already been released, and include a song about gamma ray bursts that can be downloaded from the Web at: http://www.astro.psu.edu/xray/swift/outreach/

Additional products will include a series of segments on Penn State's "What's in the News" program discussing gamma ray bursts and other astronomical events.

More details on the Penn State Swift contributions can be found at: http://www.astro.psu.edu/xray/swift/

< D N B / L A K >

Contacts at Penn State:

John Nousek, (814) 863-1937, email: nousek@astro.psu.edu
David Burrows, (814)863-2466, email: burrows@astro.psu.edu
Donald Schneider, (814) 863-9554, email: dps@astro.psu.edu




Donald Savage
Headquarters, Washington, DC                      Oct. 14, 1999
(Phone:  202/358-1547)

RELEASE:  99-120


Spacecraft that will search for planetary systems around 40 million stars and observe the largest explosions in the universe have been chosen as the next two missions in NASA's medium-class Explorer (MIDEX) program.

"In my 21 years at NASA, this is the most difficult selection that I have had to make," said Dr. Edward Weiler, Associate Administrator for Space Science, NASA Headquarters. "The number of first-class concepts being submitted to NASA by the space science community for these smaller missions just keeps on climbing."

The first mission, to be launched in 2003, is the Swift Gamma Ray Burst Explorer, a three-telescope space observatory for studying gamma ray bursts. Although gamma ray bursts are the largest known explosions in the universe, outshining the rest of the universe when they explode unpredictably in distant galaxies, the underlying cause of the explosion is a true mystery of astrophysics.  Swift will have the unique ability to rotate in orbit and point its gamma ray telescope, X-ray telescope, and ultraviolet/optical telescope at gamma ray bursts within minutes of the burst's first appearance.  Since gamma ray bursts are believed to originate billions of light years away, Swift will use these sources as beacons to probe distant regions of the universe.

During its three-year mission, Swift will also survey the sky for new black holes and other sources of cosmic gamma rays.  Swift will be led by Dr. Neil Gehrels of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD, at a total mission cost to NASA of $163 million.

The second mission, to be launched in 2004, is the Full-sky Astrometric Mapping Explorer (FAME), a space telescope designed to obtain highly precise position and brightness measurements of 40 million stars. This rich database will allow astronomers to accurately determine the distance to all of the stars on this side of the Milky Way galaxy, detect large planets and planetary systems around stars within 1,000 light years of the Sun, and measure the amount of dark matter in the galaxy from its influence on stellar motions.

This 30-fold improvement in accuracy over previous position- measuring spacecraft will establish a new standard for measuring distances in astronomy and help resolve questions about the size and age of the universe. FAME's five-year mission will be led by Dr. Kenneth J. Johnston of the U.S. Naval Observatory, Washington, DC, at a total mission cost to NASA of $162 million.

"MIDEX missions not only return first-class science results, they continue NASA's trend toward greatly lowered mission costs via innovative mission planning and operations," Weiler added. "For example, FAME utilizes a solar sail instead of thrusters to provide the propulsive force needed to re-orient itself to scan the entire sky, and Swift uses its own on-board artificial intelligence software to point itself at new targets faster than human controllers ever could."

The selection of these missions is the second step of a two- step process.  In the first step, NASA selected five proposals in January 1999 for detailed four-month feasibility studies. Funded by NASA at $350,000 each, these studies focused on cost, management, and technical plans, including small business involvement and educational outreach.

The first two MIDEX missions, selected in 1996, are the Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration (IMAGE) and the Microwave Anisotropy Probe (MAP). IMAGE will be launched in the winter of 2000 to study the global response of the Earth's magnetosphere to changes in the solar wind.  MAP will be launched in November 2000 to probe conditions in the early universe by measuring the properties of the cosmic microwave background radiation over the full sky.

The selected proposals were among 31 full proposals originally submitted to NASA in August 1998 in response to an Explorer Program Announcement of Opportunity issued in March 1998. The Explorer Program is designed to provide frequent, low-cost access to space for physics and astronomy missions with small to mid-sized spacecraft.  The Explorer Program is managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, MD, for the Office of Space Science, Washington, DC.

Information and artist's concepts of these missions are available at:

http://swift.gsfc.nasa.gov and http://www.usno.navy.mil/fame/

RELEASE:  99-120

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