Swift team awarded top high energy astronomy prize
University of Leicester scientists gain international accolade
This year's prestigious Bruno Rossi Prize has been awarded to NASA scientist Neil Gehrels and the team of scientists working on NASA’s Swift Gamma-Ray Burst Explorer mission, including UK scientists from the University of Leicester and University College London’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory, for major advances in the scientific understanding of gamma-ray bursts.
The prize is given each year by the High Energy Astrophysics Division (HEAD) of the American Astronomical Society (AAS), the largest professional organization of astronomers in the United States.
Swift, which launched on November 20, 2004, was designed to rapidly detect, locate, and observe gamma-ray bursts (GRBs), powerful cosmic explosions which astronomers think are the birth cries of black holes. GRBs were first observed in the 1960s, and were a complete mystery until the mid 1990s. To date, Swift has detected over 200 GRBs, and its rapid response – it was named after the bird, which catches its prey “on the fly” – has been critical to understanding these titanic events.
“This is a great recognition of all the wonderful science coming from Swift and the years of hard work that the team has done to make it possible,” said Neil Gehrels, the Principal Investigator for the Swift mission. “Swift is a remarkable machine which is still going strong. We expect even more great things from it over the coming years.”
UK scientists from UCL’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory and the University of Leicester have a strong involvement in two of the telescopes onboard Swift and continue to support the ongoing operation of the spacecraft and its instruments and have been involved in many of the new discoveries made by Swift. This is the first time that a UK mission team has been awarded the Rossi Prize.
Professor Keith Mason, UK lead investigator on the Ultra Violet/Optical Telescope and Chief Executive of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) said,
“This is a fantastic accolade for the entire Swift team. To date the spacecraft has already made observations to determine the precise location of short gamma-ray bursts and discovered enormously bright X-ray flares in the early afterglows.”
Dr Julian Osborne, Lead Investigator for Swift at the University of Leicester said,
"Swift has been wonderfully successful at discovering new things about these incredibly energetic explosions in the distant universe, we are especially proud that the X-ray camera provided by the University of Leicester has been responsible for most of these discoveries. The Leicester team greatly appreciate the honour of this award, and look forward to learning more with Swift in this fascinating area of science."
Among Swift’s notable observations have been:
The first detection of an afterglow (the lingering, fading glow) of a short burst, GRB050509, thought to be caused by the collision of two ultradense neutron stars.
The detection of the most distant GRB ever seen (GRB 050904), lying at a distance of 13 billion light years from the Earth.
The discovery of the nearby GRB 060218 that was coincident with a supernova explosion (SN 2006aj) X-ray and UV observations of NASA’s Deep Impact probe when it smashed into comet 9/P Tempel 1 in July 2005, helping solar system scientists determine how much debris was ejected by the impact.
Highly-detailed data of a powerful flare from a nearby magnetar, a tremendously magnetic neutron star, which was so bright it saturated Swift’s detectors and actually physically impacted the Earth’s magnetic field in December 2004.
Besides observing GRBs, Swift has several secondary scientific goals, including observing supernovae (powerful stellar explosions which can be used to map out the shape and fate of the Universe) and making the first high-energy survey of the entire sky since the 1980s.
The HEAD-AAS awards the Rossi Prize in recognition of significant contributions as well as recent and original work in high-energy astrophysics. Past awards have been given for work, both theoretical and observational, in the fields of neutrinos, cosmic rays, gamma rays and X-rays. The prize is in honor of Professor Bruno Rossi, an authority on cosmic-ray physics and a pioneer in the field of X-ray astronomy. Bruno Rossi died in 1993. The prize also includes an engraved certificate and a £765 ($1,500) award.
For more information on Swift, visit http://www.swift.ac.uk/ and http://swift.gsfc.nasa.gov, and for a list of Swift’s significant observations see http://swift.gsfc.nasa.gov/docs/swift/results/releases/.
Rossi Prize information is located at http://www.aas.org/head/rossi/rossi.prize.html.
Gill Ormrod – PPARC Press Office
Dr. Julian Osborne, Department of Physics & Astronomy, University of Leicester
Dr. Mat Page, Mullard Space Science Laboratory, UCL
Lynn Cominsky, Swift PIO
Dr. Ilana Harrus - High Energy Astrophysics Division Press Officer
The UK role in Swift has been to provide core elements of the narrow field instruments (the X-ray telescope and the UV/Optical telescope), utilising mature technology already developed for the ESA XMM-Newton mission, and the JeT-X instrument.
University of Leicester - lead role in the X-ray telescope design, focal plane camera assembly and X-ray design (using past experience from JET-X and XMM-Newton). The UK SWIFT Science DATA Centre, at Leicester, provides an archive of all SWIFT data, with open access for the wider UK astronomical community. The Leicester team was led before launch by Prof Alan Wells, and is now led by Dr Julian Osborne. The Chief Engineer is Mr Tony Abbey; other team members are Dr Andrew Beardmore, Dr Phil Evans, Dr Mike Goad, Dr Olivier Godet, Dr Kim Page, Dr Paul O'Brien, Dr Evert Rol, Dr Rhaana Starling, Dr Laurence Tyler, Dr Simon Vaughan and Dr Richard Willingale.
Mullard Space Science Laboratory, UCL – the major part of the UV/Optical telescope was constructed at MSSL using designs and expertise from the XMM-Newton Optical Monitor. The MSSL team was led by Prof Keith Mason until August 2005, and is now led by Dr Mat Page. Other team members are Dr Alice Breeveld, Dr Alex Blustin, Mary Carter, Dr Massimiliano De Pasquale, Barry Hancock, Howard Huckle, Tom Kennedy, Samantha Oates, Dr Shashi Pandey Dr Tracey Poole, Patricia Schady, Phil Smith, Dr Vladimir Yershov and Dr Silvia Zane.
Swift, a medium-class explorer mission, is managed by NASA Goddard. Swift is a NASA mission with participation of the Italian Space Agency and the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council in the United Kingdom. It was built in collaboration with national laboratories, universities and international partners, including Penn State University; Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico; Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, Calif.; Mullard Space Science Laboratory in Dorking, Surrey, England; the University of Leicester, England; the Brera Observatory in Milan; and ASI Science Data Center.
The Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) is the UK’s strategic science investment agency. It funds research, education and public understanding in four broad areas of science - particle physics, astronomy, cosmology and space science.
PPARC is government funded and provides research grants and studentships to scientists in British universities, gives researchers access to world-class facilities and funds the UK membership of international bodies such as the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, CERN, the European Space Agency and the European Southern Observatory. It also contributes money for the UK telescopes overseas on La Palma, Hawaii, Australia and in Chile, the UK Astronomy Technology Centre at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh and the MERLIN/VLBI National Facility.