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NASA's Gamma Ray Scope to Chase Down Universe's Darkest Secrets

By JR Raphael
Jun 12, 2008 10:37 AM PT

NASA has launched a new mission to unravel some of the universe's most intense mysteries. Scientists sent GLAST -- the Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope -- into orbit from the Kennedy Space Center. A Delta 2 rocket catapulted the high-tech scope to its destination Wednesday in a meager 90 minutes. Now, the effort to answer centuries-old questions begins.

NASA's Gamma Ray Scope to Chase Down Universe's Darkest Secrets

The US$690 million telescope will pick up the puzzle left behind by its predecessor -- the Energetic Gamma-Ray Experiment Telescope, or EGRET -- which was put to rest eight years ago. GLAST, however, boasts far more power: In the same amount of time an average person might watch a movie, GLAST will have scanned the entire universe's sky. The process takes it only three hours, compared to EGRET's 15 months.

Understanding the Universe

The main mystery GLAST seeks to solve is simply what's out there. The telescope will survey the whole sky every day with high resolution. That, scientists hope, will help them finally figure out what's lurking outside of our tiny world.

"We live in a universe in which we don't understand what 96 percent of the matter is," explained Peter Michelson, principal investigator of GLAST's Large Area Telescope. "GLAST may give us important clues as to the nature of that dark matter," he told TechNewsWorld.

In addition to dark matter, GLAST will seek to explore the universe's most extreme environments. It will search for a better understanding of the invisible high-energy bursts known as "gamma rays." The last telescope had found hundreds of possible sources of the radiation, but most of them were never identified. Figuring out where those explosions originate would only scratch the surface of what scientists hope to learn.

"Cosmic rays are probably one of the oldest mysteries in astrophysics," Michelson said. "The origin of where those particles come from and what is responsible for accelerating them at very high energies is really the question."

Important Answers

The answers GLAST could find would mean more than a bunch of scientific jargon. They could give us never-before-seen insight into the origins and evolution of our universe.

"Understanding that is part of understanding our role," Michelson noted. "GLAST will allow us to do that."

The telescope is scheduled to scan the skies for five straight years, but researchers may opt to extend its term to a full 10. The scope will soon have a new name, too -- NASA held an online contest to come up with a more memorable moniker for the high-tech tool. More than 12,000 entries were submitted.


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