Barbara Kennedy

Focus on Research column | Penn State iPhone app brings space exploration to your fingertips

February 11, 2013 

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    Editor’s note: The Focus on Research column highlights different research projects being conducted at Penn State. Each column will feature the work of a different researcher from across all disciplines.

    Coming up next: Penn State demographers confirm the importance of religious narratives and institutions in everything related to AIDS in Africa, based on their extensive fieldwork with religious leaders and lay people in Malawi and analyses of data from more than 30 sub-Saharan African countries.

Explosions more powerful and farther away than most of us can imagine are the primary target for a NASA satellite, and its science and flight operations are controlled right here in central Pennsylvania.

The Swift satellite is also capturing the more peaceful beauty of galaxies and star clusters in wavelengths of ultraviolet light that are invisible to the human eye or blocked by Earth’s protective atmosphere. Now, you can see a large collection of new photos collected by this satellite on your computer or with a free iPhone app on your smartphone or tablet.

The new photo collection was released in January by NASA and Penn State. Penn State controls the science and flight operations of the Swift satellite and its three telescopes from the Mission Operations Center on the University Park campus.

“We developed the Swift iPhone app to be fun and informative, but also to be useful for both amateur and professional astronomers,” said Jamie Kennea, the science operations team leader for the Swift Mission and a scientist at Penn State.

You can get the free Swift Explorer iPhone app, which was developed by Penn State, online at iTunes. You also can view the image gallery on the Web at www.swift.psu.edu/uvot/coolPics.php.

“This image gallery has some of the best pictures ever taken by Swift’s Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope, including some very early images that have not been published before,” said Michael Siegel, a Penn State researcher and the lead scientist for the telescope — one of only a few that can capture ultraviolet light. The telescope’s capabilities range from detections of water molecules broken up in passing comets by sunlight, to ultraviolet light from star-forming regions near supermassive black holes.

Two other special-purpose telescopes mounted on the Swift satellite capture wavelengths of light produced in the most violent and powerful explosions in the universe. The Burst-Alert Telescope, built to have a very wide view of the sky by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center and Los Alamos National Laboratory, is a super-rapid detector of Gamma-ray bursts, the most-powerful explosions in the universe. The X-Ray Telescope, which captures light in X-ray wavelengths, and the Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope were developed and built by international teams led by Penn State.

The image gallery is among the features of the Swift app designed for use by both professional and amateur astronomers.

“Whenever the Burst Alert Telescope detects a gamma-ray burst, it automatically points Swift’s other finely focused telescopes directly at the burst while sending a text message to Swift astronomers,” Siegel said. “We then alert the astronomers in charge of other telescopes, as well as amateur astronomers, so they can be among the first to see the new burst’s light curves on the Swift App and to decide if they want observe the burst,” Siegel said.

A thousand astronomers throughout the world receive Swift’s burst-alert notices.

“Part of the fun is sharing the excitement with the astronomy community of discovering what produced the burst — maybe an exploding supernova or a black hole gobbling up a star,” Siegel said. “When we are not capturing Gamma-ray bursts, we use the satellite’s unique capabilities to do other scientific investigations, some of which produce these beautiful images from the Ultraviolet/Optical telescope that we now are delighted to be able to share with the public.”

To make the ultraviolet images visible to human eyes, members of the Swift team substitute specific wavelengths of visible light for each specific wavelength of ultraviolet light captured by different ultraviolet filters in the telescope. One of these team members is Penn State undergraduate student Blair Porterfield, who is among the astronomy majors who have gained experience while working on the Swift mission.

If an object looks different it in pictures based only on ultraviolet light versus those based only on optical light, you can bet that new scientific discoveries are going to be made about how the universe works.

“A lot of science is behind the images, but even seasoned astronomers like to see these pictures,” Siegel said. “We intend to keep updating the image gallery about once a month as a way of sharing some of the new discoveries that we are making with Swift’s Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope.”

More information about Swift’s discoveries is onlne at http://science.psu.edu/swift-news.

Barbara Kennedy is a science writer in Penn State’s Eberly College of Science.

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