NASA sounding rocket explores supernova innards

Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com – @BednarChuck

On Saturday morning, a NASA-funded sounding rocket was launched towards a supernova remnant, with the goal of examining the X-rays emitted by the object to determine the composition of this 20,000-year-old explosion’s debris.

As the US space agency announced on Thursday, the Off-plane Grating Rocket for Extended Source Spectroscopy (OGRESS) mission was set to lift off from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico at 4:30am EDT. OGRESS was travelling on board a Terrier Black Brant rocket for a 15-minute flight. This allowed it to observe the Cygnus Loop for five minutes.

“Supernovae remnants are rich with astrophysical features,” said Randall McEntaffer, principal investigator for OGRESS at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. “We want to show that we can resolve the details of those features – of an extremely large, diffuse object – in high resolution.”

Designing optical components for deep-universe research

OGRESS uses a series of optical components known as gratings created by McEntaffer and his colleagues. Each one was etched with a specific pattern, NASA explained. Soft X-rays passed across them during the probe’s observation period, splitting them into individual wavelengths of light to create patterns known as spectra.

Since scientists know which particles emit which wavelengths of light, the OGRESS team will be able to take these spectral patterns and figure out what types of matter are present in objects like the Cygnus Loop. Once they know that the gratings work as intended, they will be able to use them to investigate supernova in deep space, McEntaffer said.

The ultimate goal is to use this type of technology to hunt for missing matter in distant parts of the universe. While astrophysicists can measure the amount of material is out there, they haven’t yet been able to fully categorize the composition of all that material. The OGRESS team hopes to ultimately use their gratings on a larger telescope to identify and measure that material.

For now, however, McEntaffer and his colleagues plan to take the knowledge gained from the Cygnus Loop observations and make improvements to their gratings. The project is currently scheduled to embark on its next mission: the star Capella sometime in 2018.

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