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On Station

June 24, 2013

The space around a supermassive black hole is a cosmic maelstrom. Gas spirals into the black hole at close to lightspeed, heating to billions of degrees. Powerful magnetic fields funnel some of this material into high-speed jets that can stretch across thousands of light-years. And some of those particles may streak through space as high-energy cosmic rays — particles that can hit our atmosphere with more energy than a Stephen Strasburg fastball.

Astronomers will try to confirm that origin for high-energy cosmic rays with a new instrument aboard the International Space Station. It’s one of two astronomical instruments scheduled for launch to the station in 2017. The other will monitor millisecond pulsars — the ultra-dense remnants of exploded stars that spin at up to hundreds of times per second.

There are pros and cons for placing astronomical instruments aboard the station.

On the “pro” side, the station provides power and communications, so the experiment can be smaller, simpler, and less expensive than if it were launched on its own.

On the “con” side, though, there are many competing needs aboard the station, so the experiment may not always aim where it needs to. And there are lots of small motions that cause the instruments to jiggle, blurring the view. So the astronomical instruments aboard the station tend to take wide-angle views, which allow them to see a large swath of the universe at one time.

More about that tomorrow.


Script by Damond Benningfield, Copyright 2013

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