October 1999

No 186

British scientists are celebrating this week having been selected to play a major role in a new NASA space mission called Swift. Swift will study the explosive flashes of gamma radiation from Space, which can be more powerful than any explosion since the 'Big Bang'. These violent flashes, called Gamma Ray Bursts, occur once or twice a day and their origin remains a mystery. One theory suggests that they are caused by a black hole swallowing another star. NASA has just selected Swift as one of their key space science missions for the next Millennium. Scientists from the University of Leicester and the Mullard Space Laboratory of University College London will be part of the international team building Swift. The UK will provide two of the three specialist telescopes on the spacecraft.

Professor Ian Halliday, Chief Executive of PPARC, the UK's strategic science investment agency, said today 'Britain will have a key input to the instruments on Swift and the experience and expertise of British scientists played a great part in the selection of this mission by NASA'. Swift was chosen against strong competition, Dr. Edward Weiler, Associate Administrator for Space Science, NASA Headquarters said "In my 21 years at NASA, this is the most difficult selection that I have had to make".

Gamma Ray Bursts explode unpredictably sometimes lasting less than a second, so Swift will need to live up to its name to identify and study each explosion. "Using Swift we will make the observations needed to reveal the true nature of Gamma Ray Bursts," said Professor Martin Ward of the University of Leicester.

The University of Leicester will build a telescope sensitive to X-rays and Mullard Space Laboratory will build another telescope to measure ultraviolet and visible light. Professor Keith Mason of Mullard Space Laboratory said "Our contribution to Swift is like a small Hubble Space Telescope. It studies light from the gamma-ray burst and will be able to measure how far away it is". "The Swift mission builds on over 20 years' work in the UK building world-beating telescopes for use in space" said Professor Alan Wells, University of Leicester.

The Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) will finance the UK involvement in the Swift mission.

Further information:

University of Leicester: Professor Alan Wells and Professor Martin Ward, Tel 0116 252 3491

Mullard Space Science Laboratory: Professor Keith Mason, Tel 01483 274111

Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council: Charlotte Allen (Press Officer) Tel. 01793 442012

Pictures to support this release are available at: http://universe.gscf.nasa.gov/press/images/GRB

Notes to editors: 1. Gamma-ray bursts have been known for 30 years yet they remain a mystery. Once thought to be Russian nuclear bomb tests in space, we now know that they are extremely powerful cosmic explosions, occurring within galaxies so far away that their light takes billions of years to reach us. They explode unpredictably anywhere in the sky. The strength of Swift is in its fast response. It uses on-board artificial intelligence software to point at new targets faster than human controllers ever could. First one telescope finds the Gamma Ray Burst, and then within seconds the other two telescopes swing around and lock onto the position. Time is of the essence as the gamma rays fade away typically in seconds. Provided we can point the telescopes fast enough we can catch a glimpse of the "afterglow" which lasts much longer than the initial Gamma Ray Burst, and which shines in X-rays and in visible light. This can tell us exactly where in the sky the explosion occurred, and give us answers about what caused it. Gamma Ray Bursts can act as beacons, briefly showing us parts of the Universe so distant that they lie beyond the reach of even the biggest Earth-bound telescopes.

2. Swift is a NASA mission with international partners in Italy and Great Britain.

3. Swift is one of NASA's Medium-class explorer missions (MIDEX), which incorporate the latest technology into smaller satellites that can be built and launched quickly and cheaply. Swift will be launched in 2003.

4.The Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) is the UK's strategic science investment agency. PPARC delivers world leading science, technologies and people.

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Last updated: 27 October 1999 17:00
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