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<FONT size=1>ESA INFO 10-2002</FONT> Integral's first look at the gamma-ray Universe

ESA INFO 10-2002 Integral's first look at the gamma-ray Universe

17 December 2002

ESA's gamma-ray satellite, Integral, is fully operational. Today Integral's first ground-breaking images of the high-energy Universe were presented in Paris, France. Astronomers call such initial observations 'first light'.

The high-energy Universe is a violent place of exploding stars and their collapsed remains such as ultracompressed neutron stars, and at the most extreme, all-consuming black holes. These celestial objects create X-rays and gamma rays that are many times more powerful than the optical radiation we can see with our eyes and optical telescopes. Integral's principal investigators - the scientists responsible for Integral's instruments - explain the crucial role that high-energy missions like Integral play in astronomy: "X-ray and gamma-ray astronomy is a pathfinder to unusual objects. At optical wavelengths, the number of stars is staggering. At X-ray and gamma-ray wavelengths, there are fewer objects, but the ones that remain are the really peculiar ones."

As a first test, Integral observed the Cygnus region of the sky, looking particularly at the enigmatic object, Cygnus X-1. Since the 1960s, we know this object has been a constant generator of high-energy radiation. Most scientists believe that Cygnus X-1 is the site of a black hole, containing around five times the mass of our Sun and devouring a nearby star. Observing Cygnus X-1 - which is relatively close by in our own Galaxy - 'only' 10 000 light years from us - is a very important step to understand black holes. This will also contribute to understanding the monstrous black hole - three million times the mass of our Sun - at the centre of our Galaxy.

During the initial investigations, scientists had a nice surprise when Integral captured its first gamma-ray burst. These extraordinary celestial explosions are unpredictable and occur from random directions about twice a day. Their precise origin is contentious. They could be the result of massive stars collapsing in the distant Universe or the result of a collision between two neutron stars. Integral promises to provide the vital clue in solving this particular celestial mystery.

To study these peculiarities, Integral carries two powerful gamma-ray instruments. It has a camera, or imager, called IBIS and a spectrometer, called SPI. Spectrometers are used to measure the energy of the gamma rays received. Gamma-ray sources are often extremely variable and can fluctuate within minutes or seconds. It is therefore crucial to record data simultaneously in different wavelengths. To achieve this, Integral also carries an X-Ray and an optical monitor (JEM-X and OMC). All four instruments will observe the same objects, and at the same time. In this way they can capture fleeting events completely. Integral sends the data from all the instruments to the Integral Science Data Centre (ISDC) near Geneva, Switzerland. There the data are processed for eventual release to the scientific community.

"We have been optimising the instruments' performances to produce the best overall science. We expect to be ready for astronomers around the world to use Integral at the end of the year," says Arvind Parmar, Acting Integral Project Scientist at ESA. "These images and spectra prove that Integral can certainly do the job it was designed to do, and more," that is to unlock some of the secrets of the high-energy Universe.

Integral's primary mission will last for two years, but, all being well, the satellite carries enough fuel to continue as a five-year mission.

Notes to Editors

Integral was launched on-board a Russian Proton rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome, Kazakhstan, on 17 October 2002. The satellite was placed in a tilted orbit that looped from 600 to 153 000 kilometres above the Earth and back again. Integral's own thrusters then steered the spacecraft, in a series of five manoeuvres, into its operational orbit, between 9 000 and 153 000 kilometres above the Earth.

Although Integral orbits above Earth's atmosphere and weather, it still has the so-called space weather to contend with. Space weather consists of a constant rain of tiny particles that can temporarily blind detectors designed to register gamma radiation. "The flashes last about 0.1 second and have to be filtered out with software," says Pietro Ubertini, principal investigator of IBIS. JEM-X proved to be particularly susceptible to space weather and scientists had to 'retune' it.

Cygnus X-1 is one of the brightest high-energy emitters in the sky. Relative to its parent constellation, Cygnus - the Swan, Cygnus-X is located about halfway along the row of stars that mark the Swan's neck, at about 10 000 light years from Earth. Cygnus-X was discovered in the 1960s and is thought to be a black hole, ripping its companion star to pieces. The companion star, HDE 226868, is a blue supergiant with a surface temperature of around 31 000K. It orbits the black hole once every 5.6 days.

For more information, please contact:

ESA - Communication Department
Media Relations Office
Tel: +33 (0)1 53 69 7155
Fax: +33 (0)1 53 69 7690

Dr Arvind Parmar
ESA - Acting Integral Project Scientist
ESA - ESTEC, Noordwijk, The Netherlands
Tel: +31 (0)71 565 4532

Dr Christoph Winkler
ESA Project Scientist
ESA - ESTEC, Noordwijk, The Netherlands
Tel: +31 (0)71 565 3591

Integral's principal investigators are:

Dr Jean-Pierre Roques
Co-Principal Investigator on Spectrometer SPI
Centre d'Etude Spatiale des Rayonnements (CESR)
Toulouse Cedex, France
Tel: +33 561 556453

Prof. Dr Volker Schoenfelder
Co-Principal Investigator on Spectrometer SPI
Max Planck Institut fur Extraterrestrische Physik
Garching, Germany
Tel: +49 89 30000 3578

Dr Pietro Ubertini
Principal Investigator on Imager IBIS
Istituto di Astrofisica Spaziale
Area di Ricerca di Tor Vergata, Rome, Italy
Tel: +39 06 49934090 E-mail:

Dr Francois Lebrun
Co-Principal Investigator on Imager IBIS
Service d'Astrophysique CEA-Saclay
Gif-sur-Yvette Cedex, France
Tel: +33 (0)1 6908 3569

Dr Guido Di Cocco
Co-Principal Investigator on Imager IBIS
Istituto TESRE
CNR, Bologna, Italy
Tel: +39 (0)51 6398665

Dr Niels Lund
Principal Investigator on JEM-X
Danish Space Research Institute DSRI
Copenhagen OE, Denmark
Tel: +45 35 325 716

Dr Miguel Mas-Hesse
Principal Investigator on OMC
LAEFF-INTA, Madrid, Spain
Tel: +34 918131 196 (lab secretary: 161)

Prof. Dr Thierry Courvoisier
Principal Investigator of the Integral Science Data Centre (ISDC)
Integral Science Data Centre
Sauverny, Switzerland
Tel: +41 22 950 9101

Last Update: 1 September 2019
17-Jun-2024 22:44 UT

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