X-ray telescope vanishes

Years of hard work went up in smoke on Feb. 9 when the Japanese X-ray telescope Astro-E burned up just minutes after takeoff. Because of a problem with the first stage of its launch rocket, the craft never reached orbit and fell back toward Earth.

Intended to join two other recently launched X-ray telescopes—NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory and the European Space Agency’s X-ray Multi-Mirror Mission (XMM) satellite—Astro-E would have measured the energies of individual X rays with unequalled precision.

The craft’s X-ray spectrometer, developed jointly by NASA and Japan’s Institute of Space and Astronautical Science, was designed to analyze the high-energy X rays emitted by sources covering sizable patches of the sky. Such objects include galaxy clusters and supernova remnants.

Detectors on Chandra and XMM can’t easily observe emissions from objects that loom so large. “It is almost impossible to compensate for the absence of the X-ray spectrometer,” says Richard Mushotzky of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. The European Space Agency’s Integral mission will have a high-energy X-ray detector, but it won’t fly for at least 18 months, he notes.

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