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Top High-Energy Astronomy Prize Awarded

15 January 2007

Top High-Energy Astronomy Prize AwardedThis year's prestigious Bruno Rossi Prize has been awarded to NASA's Neil Gehrels and the international team he leads -- including many scientists at Penn State — in working on NASA’s Swift Gamma-Ray Burst Explorer mission. The prize is the top award given each year by the High Energy Astrophysics Division (HEAD) of the American Astronomical Society (AAS), the largest professional organization of astronomers in the United States.

Penn State controls Swift's science and flight operations for NASA from the Penn State Mission Operations Center at University Park, and Penn State led in the development and assembly of two of the Swift satellite's three telescopes. "We are very proud of the major role that Penn State has played in the Swift Gamma-Ray Burst Mission and of the many key contributions made by Penn State scientists and engineers to this exciting project," said Daniel J. Larson, the Verne M. Willaman Dean of the Eberly College of Science.

The Swift team won the award for its major advances in the scientific understanding of gamma-ray bursts, the most powerful explosions known in the universe, which appear to be caused by the birth of distant black holes. Gamma-ray bursts are among the most exciting topics in astrophysics. "Data collected by the Swift satellite have provided essential new insights into the enormous gamma-ray-burst explosions, and the project has provided valuable research experience for our undergraduate and graduate students, supporting our mission of training the next generation of scientific leaders," Larson said.

"This is a great recognition of all the wonderful science coming from Swift and the years of hard work that the team has done to make it possible," said Neil Gehrels, the Principal Investigator for the Swift mission. "Swift is a remarkable machine which is still going strong. We expect even more great things from it over the coming years."

Among Swift’s notable observations have been:

The first detection of an afterglow (the lingering, fading glow) of a short burst, GRB050509, thought to be caused by the collision of two ultradense neutron stars.

The detection of the most distant GRB ever seen (GRB 050904), lying at a distance of 13 billion light years from the Earth.

The discovery of the nearby GRB 060218 that was coincident with a supernova explosion (SN 2006aj)

X-ray observations of NASA’s Deep Impact probe when it smashed into comet 9/P Tempel 1 in July 2005, helping solar system scientists determine how much debris was ejected by the impact.

• Highly-detailed data of a powerful flare from a nearby magnetar, a tremendously magnetic neutron star, which was so bright it saturated Swift’s detectors and actually physically impacted the Earth’s magnetic field in December 2004.

Top High-Energy Astronomy Prize AwardedBesides observing gamma-ray bursts, Swift has several secondary scientific goals, including observing supernovae (powerful stellar explosions which can be used to map out the shape and fate of the Universe) and making the first high-energy survey of the entire sky since the 1980s.

More than forty Penn State scientists, engineers, students, and staff have worked on Swift. Science leaders for Swift at the Penn State Mission Operations Center are John Nousek, professor of astronomy and astrophysics, who is director of the Mission Operations Center; David Burrows, senior scientist and professor of astronomy and astrophysics, who is Swift's science operations leader as well as lead scientist for Swift's X-Ray Telescope; and Peter Roming, senior research associate, who is the lead scientist for Swift's ultraviolet and optical telescope. In addition, Penn State's Peter Mészáros, Holder of the Eberly Family Chair in Astronomy and Astrophysics, is overall head of the Swift science team. Mészáros was one of three astrophysicists who together were awarded the Bruno Rossi Prize in 2000 for their development of theoretical models of gamma-ray bursts.

Gamma-ray-burst discoveries eventually may lead to even more kinds of groundbreaking scientific achievements, such as mapping the location of the first stars that formed in the universe; understanding the true merger rate for black holes with neutron stars; or helping in the detection of exotic gravitational waves, which are predicted by Einstein's theories but have not yet been detected.

Gamma-ray bursts first were observed in the 1960s and were a complete mystery until the mid 1990s. Swift was launched on 20 November 2004 and has since detected over 200 gamma-ray bursts. Gamma-ray bursts appear randomly from any direction in the sky and last only a few milliseconds to about a minute. An afterglow in lower-energy light may linger for a few days, but the trick is to know where to point the telescope in order to observe these lingering fireworks from the massive explosion. Swift's novelty lies in its ability to detect fast-fading bursts, to turn autonomously to observe a burst in detail, and to relay the burst coordinates to other telescopes on Earth and in space -- all within seconds. Swift's rapid response in detecting and observing Gamma-Ray Bursts has been critical to understanding these titanic events. "I can't think of any other satellite as versatile as Swift," Nousek said.

Swift is a medium-class explorer mission managed by NASA Goddard in Greenbelt, Maryland, for the Science Mission Directorate in Washington. Swift is operated by Penn State University, using a ground station of the Italian Space Agency in Kenya. NASA's Swift mission was built with the participation of the Italian Space Agency and the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) in the United Kingdom and in collaboration with national laboratories, universities and international partners, including Penn State, Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico; the University of Leicester, the UK; University College London's Mullard Space Science Laboratory in the UK; and the Brera Observatory of the University of Milan and the ASI Science Data Center in Rome, Italy. Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, California leads the Education and Public Outreach program for Swift. The Swift spacecraft was built by General Dynamics C4 Division, Spectrum Astro, in Gilbert, Arizona.

The High Energy Astrophysics Division of the American Astronomical Society awards the Rossi Prize in recognition of significant contributions as well as recent and original work in high-energy astrophysics. Past awards have been given for work, both theoretical and observational, in the fields of neutrinos, cosmic rays, gamma rays and X-rays. The prize is in honor of Professor Bruno Rossi, an authority on cosmic-ray physics and a pioneer in the field of X-ray astronomy. Bruno Rossi died in 1993. The prize also includes an engraved certificate and a monetary grant.

For more information on Swift, visit, and for a list of Swift’s significant observation see Rossi Prize information is located at


More information about Swift, including links to the Swift song and more images, are on the Web at


-- John Nousek: 814 865-7747,
-- Neil Gehrels: 301-286-6546,
-- Peter Mészáros: 814-865-0418,
-- David Burrows: 814 865-7707,
-- Ilana Harrus, HEAD PIO: 301-286-9649,
-- Lynn Cominsky, Swift PIO: 707-664-2655,
-- Barbara K. Kennedy, Penn State PIO: 814-863-4682,