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Friday, 21 January, 2000, 13:19 GMT
Astronomer's prize catch

GG XMM moves across the night sky (Image - Garradd)

It won't be long now before Europe's new XMM (X-ray Multi-Mirror) observatory sends back its first pictures of the cosmos.

The European Space Agency says the testing procedures on XMM's optical and X-ray cameras are progressing well and first-light images should be available in the next few weeks.

In the meantime, here is a great snapshot of the spacecraft itself. It was taken by Gordon Garradd, an amateur astronomer from Loomberah, New South Wales, Australia.

He took the picture using a CCD camera attached to his homebuilt, 45-cm Newtonian telescope.

High winds

"It was not especially difficult, because XMM is a large spacecraft and it was only about 44000km distant, so it was relatively bright," Gordon told BBC News Online. "The weather proved to be the biggest obstacle to obtaining the image."

Garradd Gordon with his telescope (Image - Garradd)
In fact, the slight wobble in the 30-second exposure is the result of the buffeting the astronomer received from strong winds.

"I was asked if I could do it by one of the XMM mission team, as he was aware that I had imaged a number of other spacecraft at large distances."

Gordon spends a lot of his time hunting down Near Earth Objects (NEOs). His contributions to astrometric and photometric observations of asteroids and comets for Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, and his work on the minor planets, have been rewarded with a Gene Shoemaker NEO Observing Grant.

New record

There is even a large chunk of space rock out there that carries his name.

But he also likes to bag a passing spacecraft if he can.

"I have imaged Cassini and Near (Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous) on several occasions each, at various distances after launch and during flybys. My April 1998 images of Near at a range of over 33million km set a new record for optical detection of a spacecraft.

"I also regularly record low-Earth orbiting satellites unintentionally when observing asteroids and comets."

Some of the spacecraft in orbit around our planet are among the brightest objects in the night sky. A number of websites now provide information on where to look.

Artist's impression of XMM in orbit (D. Ducros - Esa)

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See also:
13 Dec 99 |  Sci/Tech
XMM takes first snap
10 Dec 99 |  Sci/Tech
Ariane blasts off
10 Dec 99 |  Sci/Tech
Ready to X-ray the Universe
30 Nov 99 |  Sci/Tech
X-raying the violent Universe
14 Jan 00 |  Sci/Tech
Chandra solves cosmic X-ray mystery

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