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NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory marks two years of important discoveries

Press Release From: Marshall Space Flight Center
Posted: Tuesday, September 4, 2001

NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, one of the world's most powerful tools to better understand the structure and evolution of the universe, marks its two-year anniversary with a series of discoveries that transcend space and time.

In recent months, Chandra has found the most distant X-ray cluster of galaxies, captured the deepest X-ray images ever recorded and discovered a new size of black hole.

"It seems like yesterday we launched Chandra and awaited with great anticipation for what it would tell us about the universe," said Chandra project scientist Dr. Martin Weisskopf of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala.

"It has lived up to all our hopes, giving us front-row seats to phenomena light years away -- exotic celestial objects, matter falling into black holes and stellar explosions."

Based on the observatory's outstanding results to-date, a decision to extend Chandra's mission to a ten-year-mission compared to the original five-year-mission was made by NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. The extended mission will support five additional years of day-to-day operations such as controlling the spacecraft, observing celestial targets, processing the data, and passing it on to scientists around the globe. It also includes continuing the administration of hundreds of science grants for astronomers to analyze their data and publish their results.

"Adding five more years of operation to Chandra's mission will provide double the opportunity for amazing discoveries," said Weisskopf.

Among the noteworthy Chandra contributions in the last two years is the discovery of the most distant X-ray cluster of galaxies. Approximately 10 billion light-years from Earth, the cluster 3C294 is 40 percent farther than the next distant X-ray galaxy cluster. Important for understanding how the universe evolved, this discovery is helping astronomers see what the universe was like when it was only about one-fifth of its current age.

Offering proof that black holes once ruled the universe, Chandra has also provided the deepest X-ray images ever recorded. Known as the Chandra Deep Fields, the images show an early universe 12 billion years ago that was teeming with black holes. These X-ray sources - the faintest ever detected - are giving astronomers the opportunity to look back to a time when the universe was young, shedding insight into the early structure of galaxies.

For additional insight into black holes, Chandra offers new evidence that the universe is home to a type of black hole that's not too large and not too small. This discovery - a mid-sized black hole in the M82 galaxy - may represent the missing link between its flyweight relatives formed by the stellar collapse of single, massive stars and the super-heavyweight variety found at the center of most galaxies.

These recent discoveries follow numerous groundbreaking findings made during Chandra's first year. Those initial highlights include Chandra's discovery of a "cool" black hole at the heart of the Andromeda Galaxy and an X-ray ring around the Crab Nebula.

"Over the last two years, Chandra has performed its mission superbly," said Chandra Program Manager Tony Lavoie at NASA's Marshall Center. "Not only is the observatory operating smoothly and efficiently, providing the highest quality X-ray images ever made, but the astronomical community is ecstatic with the results.

"The teamwork on the program has been outstanding, with a strong focus to satisfy the customer and streamline wherever possible. I'm proud to be associated with the program" said Lavoie, "and look forward to many more years of producing data that yields science breakthroughs seemingly from every glance at our universe."

X-ray astronomy can only be performed from space because Earth's atmosphere blocks X-rays from reaching the surface. The Chandra Observatory travels one-third of the way to the Moon during its orbit around the Earth every 64 hours. At its highest point, Chandra's highly elliptical, or egg-shaped, orbit is 200 times higher than that of its visible-light-gathering sister, the Hubble Space Telescope.

The Marshall Center manages the Chandra program, and TRW, Inc. of Redondo Beach, Calif., is the prime contractor for the spacecraft. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory's Chandra X-ray Center controls science and flight operations from Cambridge, Mass. Images associated with this release are available at:

http://chandra.harvard.edu

and

http://chandra.nasa.gov

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