Special Report  

Space Telescope Launched to Observe Distant Gamma-Ray Bursts

The NTU Leung Center for Cosmology and Particle Astrophysics (LeCosPA) celebrated the successful launch of a small spacecraft observatory last April that is expected to help unravel the mysteries of the early universe.  Developed by teams from Taiwan, Denmark, South Korea, Russia, and Spain, the Ultra Fast Flash Observatory (UFFO)-Pathfinder is a telescope designed for the observation of early photons from gamma-ray bursts.  It is capable of detecting X-rays, ultraviolet radiation, and optical light within an unprecedented one minute of a gamma-ray burst.

The space telescope was launched from the newly-constructed Vostochny Cosmodrome in the Russian Far East onboard the Lomonosov satellite on April 28.  The satellite’s launch was the first launch from the new spaceport.

LeCosPA Director Pisin Chen, who heads the mission’s Taiwanese team, says the UFFO-Pathfinder is attempting to observe the initial stage of gamma-ray bursts when luminosity increases explosively.  This, according to Chen, will open new horizons for the study of gamma-ray bursts so as to help advance humanity’s understanding of the violent explosion that formed the early universe.  He notes that the project will have fulfilled its mission if it succeeds in capturing readings of the early ultra-fast flash events of even just a small number of gamma-ray bursts.

Currently, the Swift gamma-ray burst space telescope is the most advanced of its kind.  However, Swift takes at least 60 seconds before it can lock on to a gamma-ray burst.  Meanwhile, the new UFFO-Pathfinder is capable of making observations within just one to two seconds following a burst.  As astronomers and astrophysicists around the world are now able to observe the very early moments of the bursts, they are anxious to delve into UFFO-Pathfinder’s readings.

If the space telescope succeeds in using its X-ray instruments to locate a gamma-ray burst and detect optical light within one to two seconds, it will confirm whether gamma-ray bursts are a subtype of astronomical objects that can be used as a new standard candle for measuring distance in the universe.  Since gamma-ray bursts originate from a greater distance in the universe than supernovae, their use as a standard candle would allow scientists to study the early evolutionary history of dark energy.