Monday, May 4, 2015

Sounding Rocket Launches to Learn What Makes Up a Supernova Remnant

The Cygnus Loop – as captured by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1995 – is the remnant of a supernova that exploded 20,000 years ago. A NASA-funded sounding rocket was launched in early May to examine X-rays streaming from the remnant and help classify what particles are present. Credit: NASA/Hubble/J.Hester

The Off-plane Grating Rocket for Extended Source Spectroscopy (OGRESS) payload was successfully launched on a NASA Black Brant IX suborbital sounding rocket at 4:30 a.m. EDT (2:30 a.m. MDT), on May 2, from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The payload from the University of Iowa, Iowa City, flew to an altitude of 169 miles before descending back to Earth and landing at White Sands via parachute. The payload will be recovered. Preliminary indications are that the OGRESS payload was successful. The rocket carries new technology to peer at the X-rays streaming from a supernova remnant called the Cygnus Loop – and assess what the debris from this 20,000-year-old explosion is made of. Flying such technology will also open the door to probe the deep universe for missing matter believed to exist, but yet to be observed.

"Supernovae remnants are rich with astrophysical features," said Randall McEntaffer, principal investigator for OGRESS at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. "We want to show that we can resolve the details of those features – of an extremely large, diffuse object -- in high resolution."

At the heart of the OGRESS mission lies a series of optical components, etched with a specific pattern. McEntaffer and his team specialize in making these optics, called gratings. During its observation period, OGRESS will pass incoming soft X-rays across this grating, which splits the X-rays into individual wavelengths of light, to create patterns known as spectra. Centuries of spectroscopic research have taught scientists which particles emit which wavelengths of light, so these spectral patterns can show what kinds of matter are present in something like the Cygnus Loop -- or anyplace else.

"Once we know the gratings work well for this astrophysical source, then we can start probing the deep universe," said McEntaffer.

The McEntaffer team stands in front of the OGRESS sounding rocket during its spin balance test. Credit: NASA/OGRESS
The McEntaffer team stands in front of the OGRESS sounding rocket during its spin balance test. Credit: NASA/OGRESS

McEntaffer wants to use similar technology to search for missing matter in distant space. Astrophysicists can measure how much material is present in the universe based on the amount of light observed, but they haven't yet been able to fully categorize the composition of all that material. McEntaffer hopes that eventually he can use their grating fitted to a larger telescope with an extended time in space to identify and accurately measure the material out in the distant universe.

In the meantime, the OGRESS team will take what they learn from this flight and seek to improve their gratings. Another flight is scheduled for 2018 to observe the star Capella.

OGRESS is supported through NASA’s Sounding Rocket Program at the Goddard Space Flight Center’s Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Virginia. NASA’s Heliophysics Division manages the program.

Credit: NASA

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