Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

NASA Set to Launch Ultraviolet Telescopes to Study the Universe

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

NASA Set to Launch Ultraviolet Telescopes to Study the Universe

Article excerpt

KESTRELS seek their prey with the help of ultraviolet light. Bees use it to find flowers. But when astronomers want to see the universe that way, they have to take their instruments into space.

That's what they will be doing when space shuttle Endeavour takes the Astro-2 ultraviolet observatory into orbit for 15 days, one of the longest flights yet attempted.

Liftoff is planned for 1:37 a.m. on March 2, though ominous weather conditions could delay the launch.

The Astro-2 went into orbit Dec. 2, 1990 aboard the shuttle Columbia for a nine-day mission carrying four ultraviolet (UV) telescopes. It now has three improved instruments that will let astronomers bypass the Earth's UV-blocking ozone layer and discover some of the universe's most intriguing features.

For example, by looking at UV light, astronomers expect to detect the primordial intergalatic medium -- a fancy name for the hydrogen and helium gas left over when the universe formed -- which they believe is spread thinly through the space between galaxies. Years of searching for it have yielded only unconfirmed hints of its presence. But, Johns Hopkins University's telescope on Astro-2 will search for it.

The observing team's principal investigator, Arthur F. Davidsen, expects the helium to reveal itself by the way it absorbs UV radiation from certain astronomical sources.

"At last," he says, "we may be on the verge of seeing the stuff from which we, and everything else in our universe, were made."

Astro's other two instruments have equally ambitious goals. The University of Wisconsin at Madison has updated its original Astro telescope, which can observe the polarization of UV radiation.

Polarized light waves vibrate in a particular way rather than randomly. Light can become polarized when it passes through dust clouds whose dust grains are aligned by magnetic fields. …

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