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Next shuttle mission to deploy X-ray observatory

December 28, 1998
Web posted at 4:05 p.m. EST
Columbia crew members (from left) Eileen Collins, Steven Hawley, Jeffrey Ashby, Michel Tognini and Catherine G. Coleman pose with a model of the Chandra Observatory   

(CNN) -- NASA returns to the arena of manned spaceflight in April with a mission that is to include two milestones -- the deployment of a powerful X-ray telescope and the first female command of a shuttle mission.

Cmdr. Eileen Collins will lead a five-member team aboard the shuttle Columbia, scheduled to lift off April 8 from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Their primary objective will be the deployment of the Chandra Observatory, a permanent satellite that will focus on some of the most distant and exotic celestial objects.

Originally called the Advanced X-ray Astrophysics Facility, the satellite recently was renamed the Chandra X-Ray Observatory in honor of the late Indian-American Nobel Laureate Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar. Chandrasekhar is widely regarded as one of the foremost astrophysicists of the 20th century.

"Chandra," a shortened version of his name, which he preferred among friends and colleagues, was chosen in a contest to rename the X-ray telescope. "Chandra" also means "Moon" or "luminous" in Sanskrit.

"Chandrasekhar made fundamental contributions to the theory of black holes and other phenomena that the Chandra X-ray Observatory will study," said NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin. "His life and work exemplify the excellence that we can hope to achieve with this great observatory."

NASA officials say the Chandra will help astronomers worldwide better understand the structure and evolution of the universe by studying powerful sources of X-rays such as exploding stars and matter falling into black holes.

X-ray astronomy can only be done from space because Earth's atmosphere blocks X-rays from reaching the surface. Chandra will provide images that are 50 times more detailed than previous X-ray missions.

At more than 45 feet in length and weighing more than 5 tons, the observatory will be one of the largest objects ever placed in Earth orbit by the space shuttle.

Clinton and Collins
Bill Clinton congratulates Collins at the White House in March   

Collins was promoted to shuttle flight commander at a White House ceremony in March. First lady Hillary Rodham Clinton made the announcement, saying Collins will take "one big step for women and one giant leap for humanity."

Collins, 41, became an astronaut in July 1991. She is one of 27 women who have flown in the history of the space shuttle program and has logged more than 419 hours in space.

The other members of the mission STS-93 crew are Jeffrey S. Ashby, pilot, and mission specialists Steven A. Hawley, Michel Tognini of France and Catherine G. Coleman.

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