By Cassie Ferguson
The Harvard scientists who helped design NASA's Advance X-ray Astrophysics Facility (AXAF) recently met the crew who will be hauling their creation into space next January.
At the Operations Control Center near M.I.T. the scientists, some of whom brought their families, had the chance to meet the astronauts and ask them a few questions.
After a brief introduction by Harvey Tananbaum, director of the AXAF Science Center and associate director of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the adults in the crowd fired away: "What will you do if the telescope breaks?" "Will you be able to get it back once it's been deployed?"
The youngsters brought up a separate set of issues: "Do you eat pizza in outer space?" "Is flying the Shuttle like the simulators at space camp?"
The blue-jumpsuit-clad astronauts replied that once the telescope's been launched from the Shuttle, it cannot be fixed; they don't eat pizza in outer space; and that although they're too old to have gone to space camp, the simulator probably offers an experience similar to piloting the Shuttle.
The astronauts also shared their enthusiasm about the task of placing the X-ray Facility in space. Colonel Eileen Collins, who will be the first female Shuttle mission commander, said, "I can't wait to go. I can't wait to see all the great science we're going to get back from this telescope."
The new telescope will be the largest and most powerful X-ray observatory ever built, revealing 50 times more detail than any
previous telescope. The difference between the new X-ray images and the old ones will be comparable to the difference between a fuzzy black and white picture and a sharp color picture.
Scientists will use the telescope to peer deep into black holes,
exploding stars, and dense gatherings of stars. They hope to study how the elements necessary for life are created and spread through the galaxy, measure the radiation of black holes, and gauge the temperature and pressure of hot gas in distant clusters of galaxies formed when the universe was very young.
Copyright 1998 President and Fellows of Harvard College