November 19, 2004

Wouldn't you like to fly, in my beautiful balloon?

Two Fifth Dimension-inspired titles in two days. Wonder what that means?

Scientists using an experimental X-ray telescope suspended from a balloon have captured a unique picture of a pulsar shining in a form of light never before imaged in detail -- that is, in high-energy "hard" X-rays. The observation marks a milestone in astronomical imaging.

The difficulty in detecting X-rays is precisely what makes them so useful in medical imagery, they tend to go through things. Like mirrors and detection equipment.

Visible light -- the reds, greens and blues our eyes can detect -- is far easier to reflect and magnify, the basic function of an optical telescope. Shine a flashlight into the mirror, and the light will bounce back. A beam of X-rays would pierce through the mirror. To reflect X-ray light onto a detector, scientists need a telescope with mirrors aligned at shallow angles to the detector. The process is like skimming a stone on water.

Lofting experimental equipment by balloon is nothing new, it's a cost effective way to perform tests and diagnostics without actually sending it all the way into space (this balloon achieved an altitude of 39 kilometers). As a bonus, you can retrieve the payload after you're done testing, which is difficult to impossible from orbit.

"The beauty of balloons is that we can test these cutting-edge technologies for relatively little money. Try to imagine testing a 26-foot-long telescope any other way. We plan to fly InFOCuS several more times in the next few years."

This is all headed towards a proposed NASA mission called Constellation-X.

Constellation X, proposed for flight early next decade, would comprise several telescopes flying in unison with the combined light-collecting power needed to observe matter falling into black holes. Constellation X is a key mission in NASA's Beyond Einstein roadmap.

In other words, pure fundamental research.

I also noted this at the bottom of NASA's press release:

Note on acronym: The "u" of "InFOCuS" is actually the Greek letter "mu" (m), which denotes the prefix "micro".

Mu's in space! Who Nu?

Posted by Ted at November 19, 2004 09:35 AM
Category: SciTech
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