NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory is the most sophisticated X-ray observatory built today. Launched on July 23, 1999 at the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida by Space Shuttle Columbia, it has been NASA’s go-to for X-ray astronomy.

The goal of the Chandra X-ray telescope is to detect X-ray emission from very hot regions of the universe, such as clusters of galaxies, star explosions, and matter around black holes. Chandra is specifically designed to observe regions with high energy in the universe, such as remnants of exploded stars.

However, since X-rays are absorbed by Earth’s atmosphere, Chandra must orbit above it, up to an altitude of 139,000 km in space. It flies 200 times higher than Hubble, which is more than 1/3 of the way to the moon.

Compositions of Chandra

Chandra is composed of three major parts:

  1. X-ray telescope – Consists of 4 mirrors which focus X-rays from celestial objects.
  2. Science Instruments – Records the X-rays so that the X-ray images can be produced and analyzed.
  3. Spacecraft – Provides the conditions necessary for the telescope and the instruments to work.Spacecraft_labeled_med

The process of X-rays being captured is as follows:

“The energetic X-rays strike the insides of the hollow shells and are focussed onto electronic detectors at the end of the 9.2- m (30-ft.) optical bench. Depending on which detector is used, very detailed images or spectra of the cosmic source can be made and analyzed.” – NASA

Fascinatingly, and showing the masterwork of the engineers of the Chandra X-ray Telescope, Chandra only requires the electric power of 2 kilowatts to operate the space

craft and instruments. This is the equivalent to the same power required to operate a hair dryer.

Chandra’s Accomplishments

As of today, Chandra has taken remarkable images of glowing remains of exploded stars, and spectra showing the dispersal of elements. Chandra has watched galaxies collide and glimpsed a supernova turning itself inside out after an explosion.

A supernova remnant located about 10,000 light years from Earth
This new version of Chandra’s image of the Cassiopeia A supernova remnant has been specially processed to show with better clarity the appearance of Cas A in different bands of X-rays. This will aid astronomers in their efforts to reconstruct details of the supernova process such as the size of the star, its chemical makeup, and the explosion mechanism. The color scheme used in this image is the following: low-energy X-rays are red, medium-energy ones are green, and the highest-energy X-rays detected by Chandra are colored blue.

Chandra has also observed the region around the supermassive black hole in the center of our Milky Way, Sagittarius A. Through this telescope, a black hole with cosmic hurricane winds was observed. Chandra has also discovered black holes from across the universe, and wonderfully, it has the ability to observe X-rays from particles up until the last second before they fall into a black hole. Cool, right?

Supermassive black hole, taken by Chandra X-ray telescope.

Chandra has also traced the separation of dark matter from normal matter in collision of galaxies, and thus contributing to both dark matter and dark energy studies. It helped map out the distribution of dark matter revealed by collisions between galaxies.270896main_print_full

Why Chandra?

Chandra’s discoveries have shaped the way astronomers (us normal people too!), understand the universe. It provides us with the opportunity to view a side of the cosmos which is otherwise invisible to the human eye.

“Chandra changed the way we do astronomy. It showed that precision observation of the X-rays from cosmic sources is critical to understanding what is going on,” Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s Astrophysics Division, said in a statement.

Chandra provides us with the opportunity for more detailed study of the universe. Its improved sensitivity can make possible more detailed studies of black holes, supernovas, and dark matter. As a result, our understanding of the origin and evolution of the universe would increase as well.

Many spacecraft have been built to further our understanding of the universe, such as the Hubble Space Telescope. However, the Chandra X-ray Telescope is only one of many spacecraft floating in space, all with the ability to capture the beauty of the universe.