With the hobbled space shuttle Columbia standing silent 10 miles away, NASA launched an unmanned rocket Friday with an observatory that will search the heavens for sources of X-rays.
The Delta rocket blasted into a partly cloudy sky at 5:47 p.m. EDT from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. The $273 million West German observatory, called Rosat, was believed to have been boosted 43 minutes later into an orbit 360 miles high."It's the finest X-ray telescope that's ever been flown," NASA program scientist Alan N. Bunner said. "As our instruments improve, it always opens the door to discoveries."
Rosat originally was to have flown on a shuttle in 1987 but was redesigned to fit into the Delta after the 1986 Challenger explosion meant waiting until the mid-1990s for a shuttle ride.
"You can imagine how eager we are that we now get the thing off the ground," said Joachim Truemper, ROSAT program scientist for West Germany's Federal Ministry for Research and Technology.
"The hunger, the appetite of the science community to do X-ray observations is very, very large," Truemper said.
About 1,000 sources of cosmic X-rays are known to exist. Astronomers hope 100,000 sources will be identified by Rosat as it orbits high above Earth's atmosphere, which blocks X-rays and makes them invisible from the ground.
"This will be the fodder that scientists will use for years to come to identify targets for future study," Bunner said at a news briefing.
The satellite consists of a powerful X-ray telescope and a wide-field camera capable of detecting extreme ultraviolet light.
After two months of instrument calibration, Rosat will begin a six-month survey of celestial bodies that emit X-rays. It will be the first full-sky survey by an imaging X-ray telescope.