NASA launched Saturday its Swift satellite, which will track huge explosions of gamma rays, the US space agency said. The Delta rocket launcher lifted of from Cape Canaveral at 12:16 pm, according to NASA, which televised the launch live.
It was slated to enter Earth orbit one hour and 20 minutes later at an altitude of 600 kilometers (370 miles).
Swift is a 250 million dollars mission, with British and Italian participation.
Scientists hope it will provide insights into black holes.
Gamma rays would be lethal to us on Earth were it not for our atmospheric shield. They emanate from astonishingly powerful phenomena, such as supernovae - massive stars that, when all their fuel has expired, perish in a violent explosion, spewing out material that later becomes the stuff of new stars and planets.
Another gamma-ray source is mighty bursts from deep space that have only recently been detected and have unleashed fierce debate among astrophysicists.
Some think these blasts could be generated by colliding neutron stars - tiny, astonishingly dense stars, born in the rubble of a supernova, whose gravitational force compresses the equivalent matter of our Sun into a radius of only 20 kilometers (12 miles). A teaspoonful of matter from a neutron star would weigh millions of tonnes on Earth.
Neutron stars themselves can collapse if their mass becomes too great, and then form black holes - the mighty maws of space that suck up everything, even light, and are only detectable thanks to the radiation they spray across the Universe.
In 1991, NASA put in orbit the massive, 16-ton Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, which determined that the powerful cosmic blasts originated above all outside our own galaxy.
On October 17, the European Space Agency launched its own gamma-ray telescope - the International Gamma-Ray Astrophysics Laboratory (Integral), from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.
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Short Gamma-Ray Bursts: New Models Shed Light On Enigmatic Explosions
Garching, Germany (SPX) Sep 07, 2004
Researchers at the Max-Planck-Institute for Astrophysics have developed new relativistic models which allow predictions of so far unknown properties of short gamma-ray bursts. Their simulations will come under scrutiny by the Swift Gamma-Ray Burst Explorer, a NASA mission that is scheduled for launch in the fall of 2004.
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