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Last Updated: Tuesday, 5 April, 2005, 17:00 GMT 18:00 UK
Swift ready for Universe's worst
By Jonathan Amos
BBC News science reporter, in Birmingham

Swift, Nasa
Swift has been undergoing tests and calibration
The Swift space observatory which seeks to unravel the mysteries of some of the Universe's most titanic explosions goes fully live on Tuesday.

The satellite's instruments have been undergoing tests and calibration following its launch last November.

Now, the $250m observatory has been cleared to get on with its mission and put its science data on the public web.

Researchers will mine the information to explain what really happens when some distant stars explode or collide.

Swift is set up to catch the intense but fleeting burst of very high-energy gamma radiation that initially signals such events, and then swings itself to look directly into the flash with X-ray and ultraviolet/visible telescopes.

This longer wavelength afterglow can last days and Swift alerts ground-based observatories to join the spectacle.

"We're talking about the creation of black holes, for example - and the physics is very, very extreme," Dr Julian Osborne, of the University of Leicester, told the BBC News website.

"These are the brightest explosions in the Universe since the Big Bang.

"We are talking about relativistic expansion at 99.999% of the speed of light. This is a domain that isn't accessible through any other route. Swift is exciting stuff," he explained at the UK National Astronomy Meeting in Birmingham.

Light on dark

Swift is a US space agency-managed mission but with a big British and Italian contribution.

The UK's major input has been to provide an X-ray camera and elements of the UltraViolet/Optical Telescope.

Even though Swift has been through a commissioning phase, it has still been doing science - and has already caught a number of gamma-ray bursts. It has even witnessed a "starquake" on a super-magnetic, super-dense object known as a magnetar.

Gamma-ray bursts are not well understood. It is thought that as some big stars collapse to form black holes, they can produce jets of material that punch their way out into space.

These jets initiate shocks that produce the flashes of high-energy radiation Swift was sent up to investigate.

Already the spacecraft is giving new insights into so-called "dark bursts", which are gamma-ray events that appear to have no afterglow at visible wavelengths.

Until the Swift era, the bursts were thought to be "dark" because their optical emissions were shielded from view by the burst's immediate environment or by the huge amount of gas in the Universe in our line of sight to distant bursts.

Swift's ability to observe afterglows very soon after the bursts occur has provided tantalising evidence that the physics of outflows from some gamma-ray bursts may instead be dominated by strong magnetic fields.

"The strength of the magnetic field in gamma-ray bursts is one of the great open questions and it has a very big role in the impact on the optical front," said Dr Osborne.

The Royal Astronomical Society's National Astronomy Meeting is being held at the University of Birmingham.

Swift catches first cosmic blasts
07 Jan 05 |  Science/Nature
Nasa launches cosmic blast hunter
20 Nov 04 |  Science/Nature
The hunt for cosmic blasts' secret
25 Oct 04 |  Science/Nature
Gamma-ray burst mystery solved
16 Apr 03 |  Science/Nature
Scattered spacecraft pinpoint cosmic burst
18 Oct 00 |  Science/Nature
Space blast teaser
25 Mar 99 |  Science/Nature
Scientists snap deep space blast
28 Jan 99 |  Science/Nature

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