Discoveries Of NASA’s Swift Spacecraft Awe Astronomers

By  //  April 23, 2013

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BREVARD COUNTY • KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, FLORIDA – One of NASA’s least-known missions also is one of its most important in scientific value.

The Swift spacecraft was launched in 2004 as a partnership between the United States, Italy and the United Kingdom to study gamma-ray bursts and assist with other astronomical observations. (Image courtesy NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center)

The $250 million Swift spacecraft was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Nov. 2004 aboard a Delta II rocket and was developed through an international partnership of the United States, Italy and the United Kingdom as part of NASA’s Medium Range Explorer Program.

It is a multi-wavelength observatory in low-Earth orbit that continually scans the universe and is designed to investigate the unique phenomena of gamma-ray bursts and assist with other astronomical observations.

Gamma-ray bursts are huge energy explosions that can be observed nearly every day in space and some theories propose they are either the birth or the death of block holes, but little is known about them.


Swift is equipped with an x-ray telescope, an ultraviolet/optical telescope and a burst alert telescope and observations are made across all three wavebands.

Within moments of detecting a gamma-ray burst, Swift relays its location to ground stations, which allows both ground-based and space-based telescopes an opportunity to observe the burst’s afterglow.

Its instrumentation also conducts ultraviolet studies of exploding stars, monitors black holes and neutron stars for surges of high-energy radiation and carries out long-term X-ray surveys of the entire sky.

This artist’s rendering illustrates the evaporation of HD 189733b’s atmosphere in response to a powerful eruption from its host star. NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope detected the escaping gases and NASA’s Swift satellite caught the stellar flare. (Image courtesy NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center)

Through 2012, Swift has been responsible for many amazing discoveries.

In 2008, Swift witnessed the beginning of a supernova in Galaxy NGC 2770, the first such time astronomers were able to observe a supernova at such an early stage.

By 2009, Swift had detected GRB 090423, the most distant cosmic explosion ever observed and at a distance of 13.035 billion light-years from Earth, it is the most distant object astronomers have yet noted.

Last year, Swift teamed up with NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope to detect significant changes in the atmosphere of a planet beyond our solar system.

Swift found atmospheric variations occurred in response to a powerful eruption of the planet’s host star and along with data collected by Hubble, gave scientists an unprecedented view of the interaction between a flare on an active star and the atmosphere of a giant exoplanet.

The exoplanet, called HD 189733b, is a gas giant similar to Jupiter, but about 14 percent larger and more massive in  size. It revolves around its star at a distance of 3 million miles and completes an orbit every 2.2 days.

The positions of the three distinct telescopes on board the Swift spacecraft are shown. (Image courtesy NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center)

X-ray telescope

Because X-rays and extreme ultraviolet starlight heat the planet’s atmosphere and likely drive its escape, the team chose to observe the star with Swift’s X-ray telescope.

Swift was monitoring the star when it unleashed a powerful flare. It brightened by 3.6 times in X-rays, a spike occurring in emission levels that already were greater than the sun’s.

“The planet’s close proximity to the star means it was struck by a blast of X-rays tens of thousands of times stronger than the Earth suffers even during an X-class solar flare, the strongest category,” said Peter Wheatley, a physicist at the University of Warwick in England in a press release.

Swift has also been employed to study asteroids and comets.

“We plan to use Swift’s unique capabilities to monitor Comet Garradd as it moves beyond the snow line, where few comets are studied,” said Dennis Bodewits, an assistant research scientist at the University of Maryland, College Park.

Swift last observed the comet when it was just beyond the orbit of Mars. Detailed results are not yet available, but Bodewits said that Comet Garradd was shedding about 400 gallons of water each second — enough to fill an Olympic-size swimming pool in less than 30 minutes.

The Swift spacecraft is managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland.