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 Wednesday, 18 December, 2002, 14:49 GMT
Black hole hunter's first image
GRB, Esa
The GRB was seen on 25 November
The Integral gamma-ray observatory - described as Europe's "black hole hunter" - has produced its first images of the Universe.

These [first] images and spectra prove that Integral can certainly do the job it was designed to do, and more

Arvind Parmar, Esa
The spacecraft is still being tested prior to its full deployment, but early data have nonetheless delighted astronomers.

One of the first pictures, released at a press conference in Paris on Tuesday, shows a so-called gamma-ray burst (GRB).

The stream of high-energy radiation, which lasted just 20 seconds, came from an immensely violent event located about 5,000 million light-years from Earth.

GRBs are mysterious events that occur infrequently to our observation but when they do, they shine as brightly as hundreds of galaxies each containing millions upon millions of stars.

Ready soon

Astronomers speculate such events could result from the explosions of giant stars, or perhaps the collisions of extremely dense neutron stars to form black holes.

Integral, Esa
Integral sits in an orbit between 9,000 and 153,000 kilometres above the Earth
Either way, it was for just such an event that Integral was launched and the scientists reported in Paris that all the spacecraft's instruments worked perfectly when asked to track and record the GRB.

Integral (short for INTErnational Gamma Ray Astrophysics Laboratory) can capture gamma rays, X-rays and visible light simultaneously.

It was built by the European Space Agency and launched on the Russian Proton rocket from Baikonur in October.

There is huge demand for its services and Esa says astronomers should start to get observing time within the next few weeks.

Ripped apart

"We have been optimising the instruments' performance to produce the best overall science. We expect to be ready for astronomers around the world to use Integral by the end of the year," says Arvind Parmar, acting Integral Project Scientist at Esa.

Integral, Esa
The spacecraft can capture light in a wide range of energies
"These [first] images and spectra prove that Integral can certainly do the job it was designed to do, and more", which is to unlock some of the secrets of the high-energy Universe.

Integral has been called Europe's "black hole hunter" because it will scan along the galactic plane each week looking for new sources of gamma rays, which could well be new black holes.

It will also study those already known in far more detail than previously possible.

Integral will allow insights into the behaviour of black holes and register the gamma radiation emitted by fast-moving particles accelerated in the region around the holes by their huge gravitational pull.

Supermassive holes

As a first test, Integral observed the Cygnus region of the sky, looking particularly at an object known as Cygnus X-1.

This object has long been known to be 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 objects like Cygnus X-1, which is relatively close by in our own galaxy - only 10,000 light-years away - will help scientists better understand so-called stellar- sized black holes.

The observatory should also provide fresh insight into supermassive black holes, such as the one though to exist at the centre of the Milky Way.

This black hole is calculated to have almost three million times the mass of our Sun

Integral sits in an orbit between 9,000 and 153,000 kilometres above the Earth.

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  The BBC's Tom Heap
"Inside is 400 m worth of sensitive equipment"
See also:

17 Oct 02 | Science/Nature
28 Mar 02 | Science/Nature
30 Nov 99 | Science/Nature
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