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  sci-tech > space > story pagecorner  

Small telescope braves objects near sun

moon graphic
UV image of the Moon taken by SWUIS from Columbia on STS-93.

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July 26, 1999
Web posted at: 4:29 p.m. EDT (2029 GMT)

In this story:

Telescope's virgin flight two years ago

Telescope could reveal comet composition


(CNN) - Space shuttle Columbia astronauts snapped a close-up of the moon Sunday with a small telescope that can make observations that would be impossible for the massive, powerful Chandra telescope released into space on Friday.

The Southwest Ultraviolet Imaging System, or SWUIS, telescope registers the ultraviolet range of light, a region of the spectrum that helps astronomers learn the composition of celestial objects.

The SWUIS telescope cannot penetrate deep space like NASA's currently orbiting space telescopes -- Chandra, the Hubble Space Telescope and the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory. Nor can it see light in the wavelength ranges of those scopes, which weigh as much as 4,000 times more than SWUIS.

"Even though it's not as sensitive or as high resolution as the Hubble, we're able to look at the inner planets close to the sun and map wide regions of the sky very quickly," said Alan Stern, principal investigator for the SWUIS telescope, which he calls a small, low-cost version of the Hubble.

The telescope, which cost just under $1 million to build and design, is a project of the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, and NASA. During STS-93, currently set to land Tuesday, mission specialist Steve Hawley oversaw the telescope's operation from the shuttle's mid-deck. Mission specialist Michel Tognini helped Hawley complete the SWUIS work Monday.

Telescope's virgin flight two years ago

The system was first used in August 1997 to capture more than 400,000 images of the Hale-Bopp comet, which Hubble could not observe at times because the sun's glare obscured it.

A computer-enhanced image of the comet Hale-Bopp, taken by SWUIS from shuttle Discovery on STS-85.  

If any of NASA's major space telescopes were pointed that direction, their optics would be damaged.

Though less sensitive than the Hubble, the ultraviolet telescope on the shuttle also has a field of view about 30 times wider than its bigger cousin.

The SWUIS telescope's mission on the current shuttle flight was more ambitious, taking in data on seven different targets. Hawley gathered images and other data on Mercury, the clouds of Venus, a newly discovered comet, faint emissions in the region of Jupiter and Earth's moon.

He also set the telescope-camera to search for evidence of vulcanoids, a belt of small, asteroid-like bodies which scientists believe encircle Mercury.

Telescope could reveal comet composition

All atoms and molecule have their own spectral "fingerprint," a pattern of peaks in graphs of the wavelengths of light they emit. Ultraviolet spectral graphs are richer than those targeting visible light so they are more powerful than visible observations from the ground for compositional studies, Stern said.

The results of Hawley's observations are far from known but scientists hope they will shed light on the composition of comets and the rate at which they produce gas and dust and how Venus' clouds are related to volcanism on that planet.

"SWUIS operated flawlessly," Stern said at a Monday news conference. "We think we've got some great data in our pocket including some spectacular data on the mapping of the moon."

A third SWUIS mission with a spectrograph is planned in 2000 or 2001.

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SWUIS Hale-Bopp STS-85 Mission Highlights
NASA shuttle mission HSF - STS-93
   • July 20, 1999 Space Shuttle Status Report
   • SWUIS Hale-Bopp Shuttle Experiment Requests Supporting Hale-Bopp Observations in August
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