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Thursday launch set for archaeological telescope


June 23, 1999
Web posted at: 5:58 p.m. EDT (2158 GMT)

In this story:

Looking for 'bar codes' and 'fossils'

Deep questions


By Robin Lloyd
CNN Interactive Senior Writer

(CNN) -- Launch is set for Thursday for NASA's newest space telescope, designed to search for chemical relics of the Big Bang that scientists believe created the universe some 12 billion years ago.

The Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer (FUSE) is scheduled for an 11:39 a.m. EDT launch from Cape Canaveral atop a Boeing Delta II rocket.

During its three-year mission, FUSE is expected to operate mostly on its own, moving from target to target, identifying star fields and centering objects in its spectrograph. That instrument is designed to break down ultraviolet light into its component colors to reveal the elemental makeup of the universe just moments after it began.

"What the early conditions of the Big Bang were, how we got here, how it got here -- FUSE is absolutely at the core of answering those questions," said Harley Thronson, director of NASA's Origins program, under which FUSE falls.

Thronson and other FUSE mission participants spoke at a news conference Thursday at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Looking for 'bar codes' and 'fossils'

Orbiting 480 miles (768 km) above Earth, FUSE will gather information that's impossible to detect with any current telescope and never has been collected far beyond our solar system, said FUSE project scientist George Sonneborn of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. The craft will orbit Earth about every 100 minutes.

Spectrographic light analysis also can reveal the process of galaxy formation by uncovering details about the molecules that compose them, providing a sort of "bar code" for galactic components.

Astronomers will be looking for one particular clue -- deuterium, a form of hydrogen scientists believe was created in enormous quantities during the Big Bang and only during that time. Researchers at Johns Hopkins describe deuterium as a sort of "cosmic fossil."

Stars use up deuterium when they are born, evolve and finally die in supernova explosions. Astronomers hope to use FUSE data to figure out how much deuterium is left in the universe so they can work backward to find how much was present just after the Big Bang. Other missions have studied deuterium, but not far beyond our solar system, Sonneborn said.

FUSE also will study the interaction between gases between stars, called the interstellar medium, and star formation, Thronson said. He called that relationship one of the universe's great cycles.

"FUSE will have as one of its primary scientific goals to investigate the hot phase of the interstellar medium, what's its temperature, density and distribution," he said. "These are key features of how the cycle works from birth to death."

Deep questions

Other cosmic questions FUSE will tackle on its three-year mission:

  • Will studying the "fossil remnant" deuterium change current theories of the Big Bang?

  • How are the elements dispersed throughout galaxies, and how does this affect the way galaxies evolve?

  • Does the Milky Way have a vast galactic fountain that gives birth to stars, spews hot gas, circulates elements and churns out cosmic material over and over?

    The $214 million mission was developed by Johns Hopkins University, which has primary responsibility for all aspects of the project, while NASA is responsible for the launch. This is the first time a mission of this scope has been developed and operated entirely by a university.

    Johns Hopkins engineers built and designed 18-foot-tall, roughly 3,000 pound (1,400 kg) spacecraft, as well as a ground station in Puerto Rico to receive signals from FUSE.

    There is a 40 percent chance that a thunderstorm could make it too dangerous for liftoff Thursday, said Joel Tumbiolo, the launch weather officer. If that happens, mission operators will try again the following day.

    The launch, which could take place as late as 12:57 p.m., is timed to give maximum sun exposure to FUSE, which is powered by solar panels. The panels must open within 10 to 12 hours after launch to avoid running down the spacecraft's two batteries, said Dennis McCarthy, FUSE project manager at Johns Hopkins.

    The spectrograph aboard FUSE will be turned on 10 days after the solar panels are extended. Initially, the craft's instruments will be calibrated. In August, it will begin collecting data.

    FUSE first was planned in the 1980s. Like many NASA missions, it was delayed and later scaled back after the 1986 Challenger explosion.

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    December 21, 1998

    FUSE: Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer Home Page
    The Johns Hopkins University
    NASA Space Science
    FUSE Guest Investigator Program
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