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NASA's fossil-finding telescope reaches orbit

fuse launch

The Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer (FUSE) launched from Cape Canaveral atop a Boeing Delta II rocket.
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June 24, 1999
Web posted at: 1:05 p.m. EDT (1705 GMT)

By Robin Lloyd
CNN Interactive Senior Writer

(CNN) -- Lift-off into a cloudy, foreboding Florida sky was successful 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 Delta II rocket carrying the Far Ultraviolet Spectroscopic Explorer (FUSE) launched at 11:43 a.m. EST from Cape Canaveral, after a brief delay due to a boat which had slipped into a danger area beneath the rocket's path.

The spacecraft separated from the rocket an hour and sixteen minutes after launch as it approached its target orbit 480 miles (768 km) above Earth.

"I've launched other spacecraft on Delta rockets and I've always said after the launch it's a joyful ride," said Dennis McCarthy, a Johns Hopkins University astronomer who is the program manager for FUSE.

"It's the best way to get there," he said. "When you look at the parameters of the orbit we're in, it's perfect."

camera mount view
A view of the FUSE spacecraft from a camera mounted on the second stage of the Delta II rocket   

NASA TV viewers were treated to a first-of-its-kind shot of the 18-foot-tall spacecraft just after the launch, thanks to a camera mounted on the rocket's second stage.

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 Wednesday at Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Orbiting 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.

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."

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

  • What is the interaction between interstellar gases and star formation?

  • 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 was responsible for the launch. Johns Hopkins engineers built and designed roughly 3,000-pound (1,400 kg) spacecraft.

    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 should begin collecting data.

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