Integral eye opens to stars

October 25, 2002

The successful launch of the world's most advanced gamma-ray space telescope will lift the lid on the violent secrets of our universe.

The International Gamma Ray Astrophysics Laboratory (Integral) will seek out evidence of powerful celestial events such as supernova explosions, black holes and gamma ray bursts.

British scientists greeted last week's launch from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan with relief. Two days earlier, another Russian rocket was destroyed along with a research satellite-carrying projects from Edinburgh and York universities.

This time there were no problems. The Integral mission was originally proposed by Tony Dean, professor of astronomy and space physics at Southampton, with Jim Matteson at the University of California, San Diego, in 1989.

It will use four instruments, in part developed by scientists from Southampton and Birmingham universities and the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, University College London, to capture the gamma rays, X-rays and visible light emitted by powerful celestial events.

These include the explosions of massive stars that liberate more energy than the combined light of millions upon millions of stars, and the capture of matter by neutron stars and black holes.

"Gamma rays are the most energetic form of radiation in nature," said Professor Dean, "and their production is intimately coupled to the physical processes that power the engines of these infernal cosmic machines.

"The extreme penetrating power of these high-energy photons enables their vital information to escape their source region and to reach distant observers," he added.

This ability to penetrate also makes gamma rays very difficult to collect in a meaningful way as they cannot be focused by conventional lenses as light can.

The scientists have instead created a device that uses a perforated disc of heavy metal to produce a "shadowgram", which is then processed into a sharp image using special software.

The combination of other detectors carried by Integral will also help them track gamma-ray bursts, mysterious phenomena that might be linked to the death throes of the very first stars after the birth of the universe or from colliding neutron stars or hypernovae.

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