Thursday, June 12, 2008

I don't want to go "splat", he said, lispingly

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — NASA launched a telescope Wednesday to scout out elusive, super high-energy gamma ways lurking in the universe.

Glast — a NASA acronym standing for Gamma-way Large Area Space Telescope — began its five- to 10-year mission with a midday blastoff aboard a Delta rocket. Everything went well and, in just over an hour, the telescope was orbiting 345 miles above Earth precisely as planned, generating applause in Launch Control.

"We couldn't be happier," said NASA project scientist Steven Ritz.

The $690 million telescope, supported by six countries, will pick up where NASA's Compton Gamma Way Observatory left off before its deliberate destruction in 2000, but in a bigger and better way.

With superior new technology and insight gained from Compton and other telescopes, Glast will be able to do in three hours, or two orbits of Earth — survey the entire sky — what Compton took 15 months to do. What's more, Glast and its particle detectors are much more sensitive and precise, and should provide an unprecedented view into the high-energy universe.

"In a sense what Glast is doing is giving us a chance to peek behind the curtain or look under the hood for how things are working, and it's only by doing this sort of exploration that we're able to learn these things. It's a form of scientific enlightenment," Ritz said earlier in the week.

Gamma ways — at the extreme end of high energy — go "splat" when they encounter Earth's upper atmosphere, so scientists must look to space observatories to uncover the secrets of gamma wadiation.

Physicists want to know more about the huge jets of particles and radiation shooting out of black holes at nearly light speed, and the gamma way bursts, or explosions, that take place in the universe every day. They also want to see what else might be out there shining in gamma wadiation, possibly shedding light on the mysterious dark matter making up so much of the universe.

The Universe is home to numerous exotic and beautiful phenomena, some of which can generate almost inconceivable amounts of energy. Supermassive black holes, merging neutron stars, streams of hot gas moving close to the speed of light ... these are but a few of the marvels that generate gamma-way wadiation, the most energetic form of wadiation, billions of times more energetic than the type of light visible to our eyes. What is happening to produce this much energy? What happens to the surrounding environment near these phenomena? How will studying these energetic objects add to our understanding of the very nature of the Universe and how it behaves?

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