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  sci-tech > space > story pagecorner  

NASA announces missions to seek planets, study gamma rays

Artist's rendering of Swift  

October 15, 1999
Web posted at: 11:57 a.m. EDT (1557 GMT)

(CNN) -- A spacecraft that will study one of astronomy's greatest mysteries and another that will search for new planets outside our solar system have been selected as the next missions in NASA's medium-class Explorer (MIDEX) program, the space agency announced Thursday.

Both of the missions -- relatively modest ones, by NASA standards -- will launch early in the next millennium.

"The number of first-class concepts being submitted to NASA by the space science community for these smaller missions just keeps on climbing," said Ed Weiler, an administrator at NASA Headquarters in Washington, in a written statement.

Scientists plan to match up observations from three space telescopes as part of the three-year $163 million Swift Gamma Ray Burst Explorer mission, which will observe the largest explosions in the universe. Launch is set for 2003.


Scientists hope to learn more about unpredictable gamma ray bursts by simultaneously pointing a gamma-ray telescope, X-ray telescope and ultraviolet and optical telescope within minutes of a burst's first appearance.

Artist's rendering of FAME  

Neil Gehrels of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland will head up the mission.

The second mission, to be launched in 2004, is the Full-sky Astrometric Mapping Explorer, or FAME, a space telescope designed to hone in on 40 million stars to measure their brightness and locations and detect any large planets that may be orbiting stars within 1,000 light years of our sun.

Observations made during the five-year, $162 million mission could help resolve questions about the size and age of the universe.

Kenneth J. Johnston of the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington will oversee the mission.

FAME will rely on a solar sail instead of thrusters to provide the propulsion needed to orient itself during its sky scan, Weiler said.

That innovation lowered the mission's price tag, just as on-board navigation software will save money during the Swift mission by steering the space telescopes toward targets with minimal assistance from engineers on Earth.

The first two MIDEX missions, selected in 1996, are the Imager for Magnetopause-to-Aurora Global Exploration, or IMAGE, and the Microwave Anisotropy Probe, or MAP.

IMAGE is set for launch in the winter of 2000 to study the response of the Earth's magnetosphere to changes in the solar wind, a high-speed flux of ionized particles that shoot continuously from the sun.

MAP is set for launch in November 2000 to probe conditions in the early universe by measuring the properties of the cosmic microwave background radiation.

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