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Chandra's X-ray vision of universe awes, puzzles

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June 8, 2000
Web posted at: 3:17 p.m. EDT (1917 GMT)


In this story:

Seeking dark matter with energy maps

X-ray jet stream blows theory away

'Our eyes open for the first time'

RELATED STORIES, SITES icon



(CNN) -- A galaxy eating its neighbor, a particle stream as long as eight Milky Ways and a nebula with what looks like a crossbow are among the latest Chandra X-ray Observatory images dazzling astronomers and offering insight into the composition of the cosmos.

The most recent snapshots, released at a meeting of the American Astronomical Society, give an unprecedented glimpse into the make-up of hot regions of the universe.

"What was interesting this week was the breadth of different things that we saw. A huge range of objects that give off X-rays, from things relatively small like our sun to things that are larger than the entire galaxy," said Chandra science spokesman Wallace Tucker.

One picture revealed one of the most massive known galaxies, swallowing a neighboring group of stars. The smaller one casts an X-ray shadow as the larger one strips away the gas of its hapless neighbor. It is the first such X-ray shadow observed by scientists.

The supermassive galaxy lies in the center of a galaxy cluster that is one of the largest gravitationally bound objects in the universe. Scientists knew it contained an extremely hot gas region, but were surprised when Chandra detected cool spots inside.

Seeking dark matter with energy maps

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"The exciting part is not so much the images, but the energy dissection," said Chandra project scientist Martin Weisskopf. The images are enabling scientists to create maps of both the temperature and the gravity of the clusters.

By pinpointing the location of matter and gravity in hot gas clouds, Chandra could help astronomers narrow the search for an elusive type of matter thought to constitute much of the stuff of the universe.

"By tracing where the gas and gravity are, perhaps you can use that to trace where the dark matter is," Weisskopf said.

In another image, a massive black hole shoots an X-ray jet a distance of 800,000 light years, where it seems to stop in a cloud of intergalactic gas, creating a bright hot spot.

X-ray jet stream blows theory away

"Both the brightness and the spectrum of the X-rays are very different from what theory predicts," said physicist Andrew Young in a statement. The University of Maryland professor reported the finding with colleagues at the ASA meeting in Rochester, New York.

"How the jet can be packed full of high energy particles, going at near the speed of light and staying so thin is really puzzling," Tucker said.

In one of the most bizarre pictures taken since its launch in July, Chandra spotted a compact nebula with an array of high-energy particles that resemble a gigantic crossbow. The nebula, located in the remnant of a supernova, is created as a rapidly rotating neutron star, or pulsar, spins out rings and jets of high-energy particles.

The neutron star is shooting through space. And because the jets travel along the direction of the pulsar's motion, astronomer George Pavlov likened the trailing jets to "rocket exhaust."

In fact, shortly after the star exploded, jets with unequal thrust along the poles of the neutron star could have accelerated it like a rocket, Pavlov said.

'Our eyes open for the first time'

Chandra has helped confirm theories long predicted by scientists. It took a picture of a hot cloud of gas surrounding a dying sun-like star, offering "conclusive proof" for the existence of hot bubbles, said astronomer Joel Kastner of the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Yet the almost year-old orbiter, which flies 200 times higher than Hubble, more than one-third of the way to the moon, has forced astronomers to look at the universe in a new way.

"It's like we're beginning to have our eyes open for the first time. We've never seen detail like this before," Tucker said. "We're still in the discovery stage, not an understanding phase."



RELATED STORIES:
Lesson Plan: Supernova Chandra
April 26, 2000
Hubble, Chandra reveal a nova of many colors
April 13, 2000
Chandra reveals X-ray jet in nearby galaxy
October 26, 1999
New class of gamma rays discovered in Milky Way
March 23, 2000

RELATED SITES:
The Chandra X-ray Observatory Center
American Astronomical Society
ASA Home Page

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