Physics: Principles and Problems


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For use with Chapter 26

First Female Shuttle Commander Helps Deploy X-Ray Telescope
Posted September 1, 1999

On July 23, 1999, NASA's space shuttle Columbia launched a new telescope into space -- the Chandra X-ray Observatory. This shuttle mission was historic for two reasons. First, it was the third of four large orbital observatories that NASA has deployed and to date the heaviest payload ever deployed. Second, this was the first shuttle mission that had a female commander.

Eileen Collins had been a co-pilot on two other shuttle missions, but this was her first chance to be a shuttle commander. "This mission is a dream come true for all of us, not just to fly on the shuttle but to fly on this very important mission," Collins said. An Air Force colonel, Collins became an astronaut in 1990. Her earlier missions included two shuttle flights to the Russian space station Mir.

Although historic, Collins' s first shot at shuttle commander had its fair share of problems. It started on the launch pad with tow delayed launched and an electrical problem in the shuttle's engines. Later in the mission, Columbia developed a 4000 pound shortage of liquid oxygen. To compensate for this, the shuttle was put into a lower orbit. However, once the shuttle was fully in orbit, the deploying of the Chandra Observatory went very smoothly.

The Chandra Observatory is different from conventional telescopes. Unlike the Hubble, NASA's first large-scale orbital observatory, Chandra does not use visible light. Another telescope launched by NASA several years back, the Compton Space Observatory, detects gamma rays from deep space. Chandra detects X rays through a series of four concentric mirrors. The beams are focuses into the collecting and imaging instruments.

Observing X rays will give astronomers a chance to study many different bodies in space, including comets, quasars, black holes, and colliding galaxies. One of the goals of the Chandra Observatory is to better understand the structure of our universe, including the location and composition of "dark matter." Dark matter is mass in the universe that can be calculated but not detected.

Visit the sites devoted to the Chandra X-Ray Observatory ( and to learn more about this historic telescope. Use the information on these pages to develop your own Chandra X-Ray Observatory timeline.



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