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Greater Collecting Area

Astronomers are in a constant search for light. The more light an astronomer collects, the easier it is to determine the properties of an object and to discover new phenomena.

In high-energy astronomy, astronomers gather light by counting photons, which are particles of light. The limit to our knowledge about the size, energy, or mass of an object depends on how certain we are of the number of photons collected. The relative uncertainty in the number of photons collected decreases as the number of photons increases. Hence the the more light we collect, the better we can know.

Chandra X-ray Observatory
Chandra X-ray Observatory
In high-energy astronomy, astronomers collect photons using either X-ray or gamma ray telescopes (as in the case of the Chandra X-ray Observatory or the X-ray Multiple-Mirror Mission) or large area detectors (as in the case of the Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer). Rossi  X-ray Timing Explorer
Rossi X-ray Timing

More photons means better images and better spectra. Better images because greater detail can be picked up as more photons create a sharper image. Better spectra because weaker emission lines become more evident as we detect more photons in them. But better images and better spectra also need higher resolution in the detector, in addition to greater collecting area.

Binary Star System
An artist's conception of an X-ray
Binary System. Collecting enough
photons from a source such as this
can tell us whether it contains a
black hole
Larger collecting area also means better light curves. For bright sources, large area means collecting more photons in a shorter amount of time. Hence, we can detect phenomena that occur within a very short time. With its large collecting area of 6250 cm2, RXTE detected quasi-periodicities in X-ray binaries down to milliseconds, and provided evidence of the signature of material just before if falls into a black hole.

Steps toward flying missions with larger collecting area are constantly being taken. Launched in December 1999, the X-ray Multiple-Mirror Mission uses compact X-ray optics to produce an effective collecting area of 2500 cm2 at low X-ray energies. Among the many types of objects it studies, XMM will use this collecting area to study to the nature of the diffuse X-ray background, which ROSAT has shown to be discrete sources, but whose nature is still largely a mystery. XMM

Future missions will depend on greater collecting area to answer our questions about the remaining mysteries in the Universe. The Constellation-X Mission, proposed for launch near 2007, consists of 4 X-ray telescopes, each with optics having a collecting diameter of 1.3 meters. These telescopes will be flown in formation, and the data will be combined, offering a total collecting area of 5 m2. Such large collecting area will allow astronomers to better study the space-time near a black hole, determine black hole masses, and better explore the phenomena that occur in these regions of strong gravity. Another example of the science attainable by Constellation-X is the study of coronal activity in other stars, which may shed light on the solar corona mystery.

Another mission using larger collecting area is the Gamma Ray Large Area Space Telescope (GLAST), which will study objects emitting gamma-rays having energies ranging from 10 MeV to 100 Gev. GLAST will have an effective collecting area of at least 8000 cm2, compared to the EGRET instrument on the Gamma Ray Observatory, which has an area of 1500 cm2. In addition, GLAST will be able to view 4 times more of the sky at any one time than EGRET did. With its large area and sensitivity, GLAST will address the evolution of supermassive black holes in the centers of some galaxies, the nature of particle jets emanating from these black holes, and search for radiation from weakly interacting particles, which may make up the dark matter in the universe. GLAST

Finally, ACCESS, the Advanced Cosmic-ray Composition Experiment for the Space Station, provides up to 4 m2 for the detection of cosmic rays from sources in our galaxy. Previous missions indicate that supernovae remnants accelerate atomic nuclei up to energies of about 1015 eV. ACCESS will be the first instrument to directly study the composition of cosmic rays around this energy. In doing so, it will be able to determine how the supernovae acceleration mechanisms decline in their efficiency at these energies, leading to a better understanding of the acceleration process. This experiment is slated to be placed on the International Space Station around 2006.

Imagine the Universe is a service of the High Energy Astrophysics Science Archive Research Center (HEASARC), Dr. Nicholas White (Director), within the Exploration of the Universe Division (EUD) at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

The Imagine Team
Project Leader: Dr. Jim Lochner
Curator:Meredith Bene
Responsible NASA Official:Phil Newman
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