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GLAST telescope will map space in a new way

Latest update : 2008-06-10

NASA plans to launch a hi-tech telescope Wednesday that will be able to see gamma-ray energy blasts that point to black holes and pulsars, as well as dark matter. Gamma-rays are invisable to the human eye.

A hi-tech telescope NASA plans to launch on Wednesday hopes to fling open a new window on the Universe, exploring extreme sources of gamma-rays that point to powerful and exotic phenomena.

The Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope, or GLAST, will search for energy blasts that point to black holes and other beasts, and hunt for clues to explain the strange, magnetized neutron stars known as pulsars.

The telescope may also unlock the mysteries of dark matter, which comprises about 25 percent of mass in the Universe but is invisible to the naked eye, compared with the five percent of visible matter.

The remaining 70 percent is known as "dark energy," a little understood phenomenon which is believed to speed the expansion of the Universe.

Scientists hope to gain vital information about the birth and evolution of the cosmos and study how black holes can spew jets of gas at stupendous speeds, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

"GLAST will give us a spectacular high-energy gamma-ray vision," GLAST deputy project scientist David Thompson told a press conference.

"The Universe looks remarkably different outside the narrow range of colors in the spectrum that we can see with our eyes."

The telescope will be blasted into space aboard a Delta II rocket scheduled to be launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida on June 11, starting at 1515 GMT.

It will be placed into a relatively low orbit, around 565 kilometers (350 miles) above the Earth.

GLAST will be used in a project lasting between five and 10 years aimed at examining gamma-ray phenomena in closer detail than before.

"There's a broad science community that's anxiously awaiting this launch," said Steven Ritz, a GLAST project scientist and astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

"It's about to open up the Universe to us in new and exciting ways," in particular the "last unexplored regions of the electromagnetic spectrum," Ritz said.

Most astrophysical phenomena cannot be spotted with human vision.

Through gamma-ray eyes, though, "the Milky Way would be a brilliant swath of light, and you would see a sky constantly changing with objects dimming and brightening on different times scales, Thompson said.

GLAST is a major advance over its predecessor EGRET, which was aboard the Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory launched by NASA in 1991. GLAST should be able to make certain observations in mere days that took EGRET four full years.

In its first year, GLAST will focus on mapping the heavens with unprecedented optical sensitivity that should allow it to discover between 5,000 and 10,000 sources of gamma rays, experts said.

The facility also features the GLAST Burst Monitor, or GBM, equipped to observe gamma-ray bursts, believed to be caused by the collapse of rapidly spinning black holes. Gamma-ray bursts are the most powerful and luminous explosions in the universe since the Big Bang.

The project brings together governments and academic researchers in the US, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, and Sweden.

The cost of the mission, including the launch, is 690 million dollars, of which 600 million is funded by the United States.

Date created : 2008-06-10