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Swift Satellite Wins "Best of What's New" Award in Popular Science

Stephen Hawking hails mission

The NASA Swift satellite has received a "Best of What's New" award from Popular Science magazine in the aviation-and-space category.

The satellite will be featured in the December 2005 issue of the magazine.

Swift is a unique satellite dedicated to understanding gamma-ray bursts, the most powerful explosions occuring in the Universe. Every couple of days or so a bursts of gamma rays will appear randomly from any direction in the sky and last maybe a few milliseconds, possibly, a couple of minutes. Lower energy x-rays and optical light is also seen lingering as a faint glimmering afterglow which may last for a several days.

Swift's novelty lies in its ability to detect fast-fading bursts, to turn autonomously to point sensitive telescopes at the burst before it has faded, to use the afterglow to accurately locate the burst, and to send these accurately determined positions to other satellites in space and telescopes on the ground. All this happens all within seconds of the explosion going off.

World-renowned cosmologist Dr. Stephen Hawking, who holds the prestigious Lucasian chair at Cambridge University once held by Sir Isaac Newton and author of the international best-selling book A Brief History of Time, said:

"Cosmology is undergoing a paradigm shift in thinking about the formation of stars, galaxies, and black holes, indeed, about the origin of the universe itself."

"Seventy percent of the universe is a strange 'dark energy'. Even the 300-year-old, cornerstone theory of gravity must be reconsidered. NASA's Swift satellite, has just revealed startling new details of black hole formation. Swift's observations challenge us to consider a dramatically different view."

Neil Gehrels of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, who is the principal investigator for Swift, said:

"Before Swift, it took hours and sometimes days to find and observe a gamma-ray burst afterglow".

David Burrows, Senior Scientist and Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State, who is the lead scientist for Swift's X-Ray Telescope, said:

"We now have the lag time down to about a minute. It is little wonder that Swift is making one discovery after another."

As a result of Swift's discoveries and follow-up observations by other observatories, most scientists now agree that longer bursts arise from massive star explosions while shorter bursts are the product of collisions between a neutron star and a black hole or another neutron star. In either case, the explosion produces a new black hole whose birth cries begin with a powerful burst of gamma-rays.

Gamma-ray-burst discoveries eventually may lead to even more groundbreaking scientific achievements, such as mapping the location of the first stars that formed in the universe; understanding the true merger rate for black holes with neutron stars; or helping in the detection of exotic gravitational waves, which are predicted by Einstein's theories but have not yet been detected.

"The Best of What's New is the ultimate Popular Science accolade, representing a year's worth of work evaluating thousands of products," said Mark Jannot, Popular Science editor. "The awards honor innovations that not only influence the way we live, but change the way we think about the future."

About Swift:

Gamma-Ray Bursts were only discovered in 1969, and their distance has only been known for eight 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 instruments. The Burst Alert Telescope (BAT) instrument, built by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, detects and locates 2-3 gamma-ray bursts weekly, relaying a rough position to the ground within 20 seconds. The satellite automatically and swiftly re-points 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) uniquely finds a precise arc-second position of the burst. The XRT and the UVOT (with the MSSL-provided telescope) measures the spectrum of its afterglow in X-ray and visible wavelengths. For most of the bursts detected, Swift data, combined with complementary observations conducted with ground-based telescopes, enables the distances to the burst sources to be measured.

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 routinely checks every discoverd burst regularly to study the fading afterglow, often working in conjunction with ground-based optical and radio telescopes.

Swift notifies the astronomical community via the Goddard-maintained Gamma-ray Burst Coordinates Network whenever a new burst is discovered, providing the crucial link of the burst's precise location directly other telescopes. The Swift Mission Operations Center, operated from the Pennsylvania State University campus, controls the Swift observatory and provides continuous burst information. 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).

Swift Information and Images:

Information about each Swift-detected gamma-ray burst is available at

UK Involvement in Swift

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. Now they support the Swift observations and are analysing the gamma-ray burst results. In addition UK astronomers are involved in follow up observations using ground-based telescopes across the World.

The Burst Alert Telescope (BAT) detects and locates about two gamma-ray bursts per week, relaying a position to the ground within about 20 seconds. This position is then used to 'swiftly' steer the satellite to point the X-ray Telescope (XRT), and the UV/Optical telescope (UVOT) directly at the burst position. Meanwhile, Swift 'e-mails' 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 Telescope in Hawaii, 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 understanding of gamma ray bursts. Swift is making huge strides in this new scientific adventure."

Dr Julian Osborne, Swift team leader at the University of Leicester, said:

"Swift has delivered massively on its promise to revolutionise gamma-ray burst research. Its high scientific productivity reflects the hard work of an expert team. Long may it continue."

University of Leicester involvement with Swift

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). Operational support, calibration and scientific burst analysis. The UK SWIFT Science DATA Centre, at Leicester, is providing an archive of all SWIFT data, with open access for the whole 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.

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.

Swift at the National Space Centre, Leicester

Visitors to the National Space Centre are among the first members of the public to be informed of a new gamma-ray burst detection. This is thanks to a PPARC funded Swift exhibition in the centre's Space Now gallery. As part of the Gamma-ray Burst Coordinates Network (GCN), the The National Space Centre is contacted whenever Swift detects a new burst.

Part of the exhibition features a set of red, green and amber lights, which change depending on recent Swift discoveries. A red light indicates a burst within the last 24 hours. The location of the most recent burst is also shown on a large screen displaying an image of the entire sky.

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