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With new telescope, a fresh view of the cosmos

The gamma ray telescope, slated to launch soon, could yield insights into such mysteries as dark matter.

By Peter N. SpottsStaff Writer for The Christian Science Monitor / June 10, 2008

Technicians at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida install an antenna on the Gamma-ray Large Area Telescope, a new orbiting spacecraft that could help unlock some of the mysteries of the universe.

Kim Shiflett/UPI/NEWSCOM

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A spacecraft called GLAST is set to open a new window on the high-octane cosmos.

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The orbiting observatory, designed to detect high-energy gamma rays, is slated for launch perhaps as early as June 11. It’s designed to explore the most energetic, exotic phenomena the universe has to offer. These range from tight beams of particles hurtling across vast distances from the center of young, active galaxies to the more fleeting gamma ray bursts thought to occur when neutron stars collide or an exploding star collapses to form a black hole.

Compared with the often sedate views of stars and galaxies astronomers gather through optical telescopes, “with GLAST, it’s like the Fourth of July all over the sky,” says Peter Michelson, a physicist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif.

GLAST, or Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope, may also yield new insights into the nature of so-called dark matter, which constitutes 80 percent of matter in the universe. In principle the data GLAST collects could also provide a test of quantum theories of gravity – the missing link in efforts to demonstrate that the four forces of nature are low-energy manifestations of one unified force present at the universe’s birth.

A project across borders
The $690 million mission represents a deepening collaboration among astrophysicists and particle physicists.

For years, each group has asked related questions about the origin and evolution of the universe. Particle physicists probe the very tiny with large underground particle accelerators. They try to re-create conditions and subatomic particles thought to have existed at the earliest moments of the universe’s birth.

Astrophysicists explore the universe on cosmic scales with ground-and space-based instruments, reaching back ever earlier toward the universe’s infancy. Now, both are set to add a new common tool to their arsenal.

GLAST’s hardware reflects this collaboration, a joint mission between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the US Department of Energy and scientists overseas. The gamma ray detectors and analysis software trace their pedigree to projects such as the defunct Superconducting Super Collider and the new Large Hadron Collider at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva. The burst monitor, designed to scan broad swaths of sky for the events, comes from NASA’s Marshall Spaceflight Center and the Max Plank Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Germany. [Editor's Note: This paragraph has been updated to clarify CERN’s influence on the detectors’ design.]

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