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Penn State iPhone app brings space exploration to your fingertips

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This article, written by Barbara Kennedy and featuring the work of Penn State astronomers, originally appeared in the Centre Daily Times (CDT) on 10 February 2013 in the weekly "Focus on Research" column, which highlights different research projects being conducted at Penn State.

10 February 2013

The X-Ray Telescope is one of three telescopes aboard the NASA-led Swift satellite. This telescope was built at Penn State by Penn State scientists and engineers as well as partners at the Brera Astronomical Observatory in Italy and the University of Leicester in England. NASA
The X-Ray Telescope is one of three telescopes aboard the NASA-led Swift satellite. This telescope was built at Penn State by Penn State scientists and engineers as well as partners at the Brera Astronomical Observatory in Italy and the University of Leicester in England. NASA
Explosions more powerful and farther away than most of us can imagine are the primary target for a NASA satellite, and its science and flight operations are controlled right here in central Pennsylvania.

The Swift satellite is also capturing the more peaceful beauty of galaxies and star clusters in wavelengths of ultraviolet light that are invisible to the human eye or blocked by Earth’s protective atmosphere. Now, you can see a large collection of new photos collected by this satellite on your computer or with a free iPhone app on your smartphone or tablet.

The new photo collection was released in January by NASA and Penn State. Penn State controls the science and flight operations of the Swift satellite and its three telescopes from the Mission Operations Center on the University Park campus.

The Swift Explorer app. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center
The Swift Explorer app. Credit: NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center
"We developed the Swift iPhone app to be fun and informative, but also to be useful for both amateur and professional astronomers," said Jamie Kennea, the science operations team leader for the Swift Mission and a scientist at Penn State.

You can get the free Swift Explorer iPhone app, which was developed by Penn State, online at iTunes. You also can view the image gallery here.

“This image gallery has some of the best pictures ever taken by Swift’s Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope, including some very early images that have not been published before,” said Michael Siegel, a Penn State researcher and the lead scientist for the telescope — one of only a few that can capture ultraviolet light. The telescope’s capabilities range from detections of water molecules broken up in passing comets by sunlight, to ultraviolet light from star-forming regions near supermassive black holes.

Two other special-purpose telescopes mounted on the Swift satellite capture wavelengths of light produced in the most violent and powerful explosions in the universe. The Burst-Alert Telescope, built to have a very wide view of the sky by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and Los Alamos National Laboratory, is a super-rapid detector of Gamma-ray bursts, the most-powerful explosions in the universe. The X-Ray Telescope, which captures light in X-ray wavelengths, and the Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope were developed and built by international teams led by Penn State.

NGC 6744, a spiral galaxy 31 million light-years away in the constellation Pavo, might serve as a stand-in for our own Milky Way galaxy. Fluffy spiral arms rich in young star clusters become more distinct when viewed in ultraviolent wavelengths of light because the hot young stars emit more of this high-energy light. At left and center, respectively, are Swift images from its UltraViolet/Optical telescope (UVOT) taken through three of the telescope’s optical filters and three of its ultraviolet filters. The panel at right shows X-ray observations from Swift’s X-ray Telescope (XRT). NASA, SWIFT , S. IMMLER
NGC 6744, a spiral galaxy 31 million light-years away in the constellation Pavo, might serve as a stand-in for our own Milky Way galaxy. Fluffy spiral arms rich in young star clusters become more distinct when viewed in ultraviolent wavelengths of light because the hot young stars emit more of this high-energy light. At left and center, respectively, are Swift images from its UltraViolet/Optical telescope (UVOT) taken through three of the telescope’s optical filters and three of its ultraviolet filters. The panel at right shows X-ray observations from Swift’s X-ray Telescope (XRT). NASA, SWIFT , S. IMMLER
The image gallery is among the features of the Swift app designed for use by both professional and amateur astronomers.

"Whenever the Burst Alert Telescope detects a gamma-ray burst, it automatically points Swift’s other finely focused telescopes directly at the burst while sending a text message to Swift astronomers," Siegel said. "We then alert the astronomers in charge of other telescopes, as well as amateur astronomers, so they can be among the first to see the new burst’s light curves on the Swift App and to decide if they want observe the burst," Siegel said.

A thousand astronomers throughout the world receive Swift’s burst-alert notices.

"Part of the fun is sharing the excitement with the astronomy community of discovering what produced the burst — maybe an exploding supernova or a black hole gobbling up a star," Siegel said. "When we are not capturing Gamma-ray bursts, we use the satellite’s unique capabilities to do other scientific investigations, some of which produce these beautiful images from the Ultraviolet/Optical telescope that we now are delighted to be able to share with the public."

Omega Centauri (also known as NGC 5139) is the largest, brightest and most massive of our galaxy’s retinue of approximately 150 globular star clusters. Packing some 10 million stars into a region just 150 light-years across, Omega Centauri is easily visible to the unaided eye despite lying nearly 16,000 light-years away. NASA, SWIFT, S. HOLLAND (GODDARD SPACE FLIGHT CENTER), M. SIEGEL AND E. FONSECA (PENN STATE)
Omega Centauri (also known as NGC 5139) is the largest, brightest and most massive of our galaxy’s retinue of approximately 150 globular star clusters. Packing some 10 million stars into a region just 150 light-years across, Omega Centauri is easily visible to the unaided eye despite lying nearly 16,000 light-years away. NASA, SWIFT, S. HOLLAND (GODDARD SPACE FLIGHT CENTER), M. SIEGEL AND E. FONSECA (PENN STATE)
To make the ultraviolet images visible to human eyes, members of the Swift team substitute specific wavelengths of visible light for each specific wavelength of ultraviolet light captured by different ultraviolet filters in the telescope. One of these team members is Penn State undergraduate student Blair Porterfield, who is among the astronomy majors who have gained experience while working on the Swift mission.

If an object looks different it in pictures based only on ultraviolet light versus those based only on optical light, you can bet that new scientific discoveries are going to be made about how the universe works.

"A lot of science is behind the images, but even seasoned astronomers like to see these pictures," Siegel said. "We intend to keep updating the image gallery about once a month as a way of sharing some of the new discoveries that we are making with Swift’s Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope."

More information about Swift’s discoveries is online at http://science.psu.edu/swift-news.

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