News and events archive 2004 - 2013


NASA Successfully Launches Swift Satellite

Satellite will pinpoint location of explosions that appear to signal births of black holes.

Below: Link to Swift website at the University of Leicester (latest updates, pictures, etc)

NASA's Swift satellite successfully launched on Saturday 20 November on board a Boeing Delta 2 rocket at 12:16 p.m. (5.15pm in UK) at NASA's Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral in Florida. The satellite will pinpoint the location of distant yet fleeting explosions that appear to signal the births of black holes.

The launch was witnessed live through a satellite relay at the National Space Centre with presentations from University of Leicester scientists and others. A live phone-link to Professor Alan Wells at Cape Canarveral heard him describe the launch as the beginning of a new era of space research at the University of Leicester.

"It's a thrill that Swift is in orbit. We expect to detect and analyse more than 100 gamma-ray bursts a year. These are the most powerful explosions in the universe, and I can't wait to learn more about them," said Swift Principal Investigator Dr Neil Gehrels, at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

Each gamma-ray burst is a short-lived event, lasting only a few milliseconds to a few minutes, never to appear again. They occur several times daily somewhere in the universe, and Swift should detect several weekly.

Gamma-Ray Bursts were only discovered in 1969, and their distance has only been known for seven years. Swift, a mission with substantial UK and Italian participation, is designed to solve the mystery of the origin of gamma-ray bursts. Scientists believe the bursts are related to the formation of black holes throughout the universe - the birth cries of black holes.

To track these mysterious bursts, Swift carries a suite of three main instruments. The Burst Alert Telescope (BAT) instrument, built by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, will detect and locate 2-3 gamma-ray bursts weekly, relaying a rough position to the ground within 20 seconds. The satellite will automatically and swiftly re-point itself to bring the burst area into the narrower fields of view of the on-board X-ray Telescope (XRT) and the UltraViolet/Optical Telescope (UVOT). These telescopes study the afterglow of the burst produced by the cooling material that remain from the original explosion.

The XRT (with its Leicester-provided X-ray camera) and the UVOT (from MSSL) will determine a precise arc-second position of the burst and measure the spectrum of its afterglow in visible and X-ray wavelengths. For most of the bursts detected, Swift data, combined with complementary observations conducted with ground-based telescopes, will enable measurements of the distances to the burst sources.

The afterglow phenomenon can linger in X-ray light, optical light, and radio waves for hours to weeks, providing detailed information about the burst. Swift will check in on bursts regularly to study the fading afterglow, as will ground-based optical and radio telescopes. The crucial link is having a precise location to direct other telescopes. Swift will provide extremely precise positions for bursts in a matter of minutes.

Swift notifies the astronomical community via the Goddard-maintained Gamma-ray Burst Coordinates Network. The Swift Mission Operations Center, operated from Penn State's University Park, Pa., campus, controls the Swift observatory and provides continuous burst information.

"Swift can respond almost instantly to any astrophysical phenomenon, and I suspect that we're going to be making many discoveries which are currently unpredicted," said Swift Mission Director John Nousek, Penn State professor of astronomy and astrophysics.

Goddard manages Swift. Swift is a NASA mission with the participation of the Italian Space Agency (ASI) and the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council in the United Kingdom.

Swift was built through collaboration with national laboratories, universities and international partners, including General Dynamics, Gilbert, Arizona; Penn State University; Los Alamos National Laboratory, New Mexico; Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, Calif.; Mullard Space Science Laboratory in Dorking, Surrey, England; the University of Leicester, England; ASI-Malindi ground station in Africa; the ASI Science Data Center in Italy; and the Brera Observatory in Milan, Italy.

The total cost of the mission is £138 million (250 million dollars). The UK contribution, funded by the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, is £3.81 million (plus a further £2.35 million for post launch support).


UK scientists, from the University of Leicester and University College London's Mullard Space Science Laboratory, have designed and built core elements of two of the three Swift telescopes. In addition UK astronomers will be involved in follow up observations using ground-based telescopes across the World.

The Burst Alert Telescope (BAT) will detect and locate about two gamma-ray bursts per week, relaying a position to the ground within about 20 seconds. This position will then be used to 'swiftly' steer the satellite to point the X-ray Telescope (XRT), directly at the burst position. Meanwhile, Swift will 'e-mail' scientists and telescopes around the world to observe the burst in real-time through the Swift Gamma-ray Burst Coordinates Network (GCN). This includes UK astronomers using telescope facilities such as the Faulkes Telescopes in Hawaii and Australia, the William Herschel and Liverpool Telescopes in La Palma and the European Southern Observatory's Very Large Telescope in Chile.

Professor Alan Wells from the University of Leicester, UK Lead Investigator for the XRT onboard Swift, has said:

"Of the 10 space missions I've worked on over the past 30 years, Swift is by far the most innovative. The mission, the spacecraft and especially the scientific instruments that we, in the UK, have had a big hand in over the past 5 years, are finely tuned to push back the frontiers of the understanding of gamma ray bursts. The launch of Swift is the next big step in this new scientific adventure."

University of Leicester

Lead role in the X-ray telescope design, and delivery of the focal plane camera and its cooled X-ray CCD detector (using past experience from JET-X and XMM-Newton). The UK SWIFT Science DATA Centre, at Leicester, will provide an archive of all SWIFT data, with open access for the wider UK astronomical community.

The satellite also carries a rare tribute to a University of Leicester scientist. Mr David Watson, who joined the University of Leicester in 1960 and was a Principal Experimental Officer in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, had a plaque engraved in his memory and flown into space.

The small engraved plaque, fixed to the SWIFT X-ray Telescope, carries the following message into space:

In Memoriam DAVID JOHN WATSON 1943-2003 Friend and Colleague, Who touched this instrument and our lives with his gentle and thoughtful attention.

A duplicate of the plaque is located at the Michael Atiyah Building at the University of Leicester, housing the Space Research Centre.


[External Link] - Swift website at the University of Leicester

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