Assembly of the world's most powerful X-ray telescope, NASA's Advanced X-ray Astrophysics Facility, was completed last week with the installation of its power-generating twin solar panels. AXAF is scheduled for launch aboard Space Shuttle mission STS-93, in December 1998.
The last major components of the observatory were bolted and pinned into place March 4 at TRW Space & Electronics Group in Redondo Beach, CA, and pre-launch testing of the fully assembled observatory began March 7.
"Completion of the observatory's assembly process is a big step forward toward launch scheduled for the end of this year," said Fred Wojtalik, manager of the Observatory Projects Office at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville, AL. "With all the major components in place, we are now concentrating on a thorough pre-launch checkout of the observatory." "We're delighted to reach this major milestone for the program," said Craig Staresinich, TRW's Advanced X-ray Astrophysics Facility program manager. "The entire observatory team has worked hard to get to this point and will continue an exhaustive test program to ensure mission success. We're looking forward to delivering a truly magnificent new space capability to NASA later this summer."
The first pre-launch test of the Advanced X-ray Astrophysics Facility was an acoustic test, which simulated the sound pressure environment inside the Space Shuttle cargo bay during launch. A thorough electrical checkout before and after the acoustic test verifies that the observatory and its science instruments can withstand the extreme sound levels and vibrations that accompany launch.
"With 10 times the resolution and 50-100 times the sensitivity of any previous X-ray telescope, this observatory will provide us with a new perspective of our universe," said the project's chief scientist, Dr. Martin Weisskopf, of Marshall. "We'll be able to study sources of X-rays throughout the universe, like colliding galaxies and black holes, many of which are invisible to us now. We may even see the processes that create the elements found here on Earth."
Assembly of the observatory began in 1997 with the arrival of the high resolution mirror assembly at TRW Space and Electronics Group. In August 1997, the telescope's optical bench was mated with the mirrors, followed by integration of the telescope with the spacecraft in October. In February 1998, the observatory's science instrument module was mated to the top of the telescope. The complete observatory is 45 feet long, has a solar array wing span 64 feet wide, and weighs more than 5 tons.
Using glass purchased from Schott Glaswerke, Mainz, Germany, the telescope's mirrors were built by Raytheon Optical Systems Inc., Danbury, CT. The mirrors were coated by Optical Coating Laboratory Inc., Santa Rosa, CA, and assembled by Eastman-Kodak Co., Rochester, NY. The observatory's charged coupled device imaging spectrometer was developed by the Pennsylvania State University at University Park, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), at Cambridge. One diffraction grating was developed by MIT, the other by the Space Research Organization Netherlands, Utrecht, in collaboration with the Max Planck Institute, Garching, Germany. The high resolution camera instrument was built by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation of Boulder, CO, developed the science instrument module.
The Advanced X-ray Astrophysics Facility program is managed by Marshall for the Office of Space Science, NASA Headquarters, Washington, DC. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, Cambridge, MA, will operate the observatory for NASA.
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