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Leicester plays vital part in capturing cosmic explosions

This all-sky map shows the locations of Swift's 500 gamma-ray bursts, color coded by the year in which they occurred. In the background, an infrared image shows the location of our galaxy and its largest satellites. Credit: NASA/Swift/Francis Reddy

Leicester plays vital part in capturing cosmic explosions

University plays key role in NASA’s Swift satellite which captures 500th Gamma Ray Burst

Issued on 20 April 2010

A NASA Satellite with a unique Leicester imprint has recently captured information of the 500th Gamma Ray Burst (GRB) - the biggest and most mysterious explosions in the cosmos.

On April 13, the spacecraft's "burst-o-meter" catalogued its 500th GRB.

In its first five years in orbit, Swift has delivered revolutionary science- thanks in part to instruments built at the University’s Space Research Centre in the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

The satellite houses a number of instruments including one, the X-Ray Telescope, for which the University played a central role. A plaque, on the satellite, commemorates a Leicester colleague who played a pivotal part in producing the instrument.

Swift, which launched on November 20, 2004, was designed to rapidly detect, locate, and observe gamma-ray bursts - 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.

Now scientists are marking the 500th GRB to be captured by Swift -so named after the bird which catches its prey “on the fly”.

Dr Julian Osborne of the University of Leicester commented: “Swift has been a tremendous success because of its many novel design features, such as rapid, autonomous manoeuvring and flexible scheduling, coupled with its wide complement of telescopes. It is much in demand for following the many new things happening in the sky every day.”

Swift's main job is to quickly localize each gamma-ray burst, report its position so that others can immediately conduct follow-up observations, and then study the burst using its X-ray and Ultraviolet/Optical telescopes. But it does much more, including ultraviolet studies of exploding stars, monitoring black holes and neutron stars for surges of high-energy radiation, and carrying out a long-term X-ray survey of the entire sky.

The X-ray telescope and the UV/Optical telescope on Swift provide the accurate positions of the bursts, and allow Swift to study the bursts and other targets in detail. Both of these have very substantial UK components, built on the heritage of earlier satellite telescopes. The X-ray camera was provided by the University of Leicester, while much of the UV/Optical telescope came from the Mullard Space Science Laboratory in Surrey.

The UK Swift Science Data Centre, at Leicester, provides an archive of all Swift data, with open access for the wider UK astronomical community

Managed by NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Swift was built and is operated in collaboration with Penn State, the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, and General Dynamics of Gilbert, Ariz. The Brera Observatory and the Italian Space Agency in Italy and collaborators in Germany and Japan have also contributed to the mission.

Click here to read more about SWIFT on the BBC website.


Note to newsdesk: For more information, please contact Dr Julian Osborne tel 0116 2523598 and email

There are 2 images and a movie relating to the Swift 500 GRB release at

The NASA release is at


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