Mullard Space Science Laboratory
Astrophysics Group
News Reports


British scientists have joined an international quest to solve one of the great mysteries of astronomy.

NASA has selected astronomers at the University of Leicester and University College London to investigate the most energetic event in space - the powerful Gamma ray flashes that originate from deep in the Universe.

They will work with scientists from the US and Italy to develop a platform in space from which to observe one of Nature's most enigmatic and elusive spectacles.

The tri-national team will develop the SWIFT orbiting observatory, scheduled for launch within the next five years, which for the first time will house a combination of highly sensitive telescopes that will pinpoint and probe the Gamma rays.

Professor Alan Wells, Director of the Space Research Centre at Leicester University, said; "The mysterious flashes, which last only a few seconds, have been detected by satellites for over two decades - but only within the past few days has one of these powerful explosions been imaged optically.

"The Gamma ray burst has been tracked down to a galaxy that is located more than half way to the edge of the observable Universe. "Though a Gamma ray flash, or burst lasts for only a few seconds, during that time it far outshines an entire galaxy of stars, making these phenomenon the most energetic events in the Universe, producing far more energy even than a supernova explosion. "If one were to occur anywhere in our own Galaxy, it would light up the sky! Their cause is fiercely debated, but they may signal the merger of two black holes or of a black hole and a neutron star."

Professor Keith Mason, of the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, University College London, said: "SWIFT is one of five missions selected by NASA for potential flight in 2003 or 2004 from a highly competitive field of 35 contenders. "It will combine highly sensitive Gamma ray, X-ray and Optical telescopes on the same platform for the first time. A Gamma ray burst occurs somewhere in the sky on average once every day. When the wide-angle Gamma ray telescope on SWIFT detects one of these flashes, the whole satellite can be repointed for detailed study of the phenomenon in less than 1 minute. "Over the course of its lifetime, SWIFT will gather data on about 1000 such bursts, which should provide the answer to the all-important question of their origin. It will also tell us how the blast wave from the explosion evolves and interacts with its surroundings, and identify different classes of bursts and their associated physical processes." The UK groups will be leading the design and construction of the X-ray and Optical telescopes on SWIFT, using cutting edge technology developed in their respective laboratories, and advanced sensors developed through the PPARC space science programme by UK industrial companies.

For further information contact Professor Alan Wells at the University of Leicester (0116 252 3522) or Professor Keith Mason at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory (01483 204100).
Last modified 1st February 1999