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May 20, 2008 - New "Particle Detector" Space Telescope to Launch

Date Issued: May 20, 2008


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(Photo - GLAST)

Menlo Park, CA—The next major space observatory, the Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope (GLAST), is about to begin unveiling the mysteries of the high-energy universe. Scheduled to launch this June, GLAST will study the most energetic particles of light, observing physical processes far beyond the capabilities of earthbound laboratories.

GLAST's main instrument, the Large Area Telescope (LAT), operates more like a particle detector than a conventional telescope. From within its 1.8-meter cube housing, the LAT will use 880,000 silicon strips to detect high-energy gamma rays with unprecedented resolution and sensitivity, filling in gaps in understanding left by previous missions, and pushing new boundaries in particle physics and astrophysics.

The Stanford Linear Accelerator Center (SLAC), a U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) laboratory operated by Stanford University, managed the development of the LAT and integrated the instrument from hardware fabricated at laboratories around the world. SLAC also runs the Instrument Science Operations Center (ISOC), which will process the LAT data for the duration of the mission. The total U.S. cost of the LAT is $196 million, of which the DOE contributed $45 million for LAT fabrication; the DOE also supported LAT researchers and the ISOC facilities and staff.

“Natural phenomena in the universe accelerate particles to higher energies than possible with any man-made particle accelerator on Earth,” U.S. Department of Energy Acting Associate Director of the Office of High Energy Physics Dennis Kovar said. “This instrument provides the opportunity to see universe through a powerful new window that will allow us to better understand what these astrophysical phenomena are, how they work, and what happens when very high energy particles interact with matter.”

As GLAST orbits Earth, gamma rays—emanating from jets of plasma streaming from enormous black holes, pulsars, and other astronomical sources—will first encounter several layers of tungsten metal in the LAT. The high-energy gamma rays will interact with tungsten's massive and highly charged atomic nuclei in a way that creates pairs of charged particles: one electron and one positron. These particles will then be detected by silicon-strip sensors positioned just below each tungsten layer. Later, these signals will be used to reconstruct the direction and arrival time of the original gamma-ray photon.

After traversing through the LAT’s tracking layers, the particles will pass into a cesium iodide imaging calorimeter, where they will generate tiny amounts of light—flashes with brightness proportional to the particles' energies.

This multi-step process makes the LAT at least 30 times more sensitive than any previous satellite detector and will allow it to survey the entire sky several times per day. Physicists and astronomers expect that this unprecedented look at the gamma-ray sky will reveal vital information about subatomic particles at energies far greater than those seen in ground-based particle accelerators, about the accelerating powers of supermassive black holes, and about the birth and evolution of the universe.

GLAST will also carry a smaller instrument, called the GLAST Burst Monitor (GBM), to detect gamma-ray bursts and other transient phenomena. Together with the LAT, the GBM will enable GLAST to make gamma-ray burst observations spanning a factor of ten million in energy. GLAST is planned for a five-year primary mission operating phase, which may be extended for up to ten years.

GLAST launch is currently set for no earlier than Tuesday, June 3, during a window that runs from 11:45 a.m. to 1:40 p.m. EDT.  

NASA’s GLAST mission is an astrophysics and particle physics partnership, developed in collaboration with the U.S. Department of Energy, along with important contributions from academic institutions and partners in France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Sweden, and the United States.


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