The Swift X-ray Telescope (XRT) has seen first light, capturing a dazzling image of Cassiopeia A, a well-known supernova remnant in the Milky Way galaxy, and also has discovered its first gamma-ray-burst afterglow.
First-light image from the Swift X-ray Telescope, of the Cassiopeia A supernova remnant. This object is the remnant of a gigantic stellar explosion that occurred in about 1680. The explosion heated the surrounding gas and the remnants of the star to temperatures of several million degrees Celsius. The hot gas has been expanding and cooling for the past 325 years. This image is a true X-ray color image: the lowest X-ray energies are shown in red, the medium energies are in green, and the highest energies are in blue. The bright green filaments are rich in silicon, while red portions are dominated by emission from iron. Supernova remnants like this are responsible for producing much of the material that makes up most of Earth-like planets and for mixing these "heavy" elements into the interstellar gas, where they can form new generations of stars and planets. The image demonstrates that the XRT is working as designed and can perform its job of imaging spectroscopy of astrophysical objects, including the gamma-ray bursts that it was designed to study.
The XRT is one of three instruments aboard the NASA-led Swift satellite, which was launched on 20 November 2004. The XRT was built at Penn State with partners at the Brera Astronomical Observatory in Italy and the University of Leicester in England.
"We have a beautiful image of Cassiopeia A in all its fiery glory, and this is just a test," said David Burrows of Penn State, the lead scientist for the XRT. "Even more exciting is our discovery of our first X-ray afterglow of a gamma-ray burst, which is exactly what the XRT was designed for. No sooner had we turned this on than presto, we bagged our first gamma-ray burst afterglow." Burrows said that the first light and this first afterglow demonstrate that the XRT is working well and that spectacular observations are sure to follow soon.
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