Scientists hope the launch of a new X-ray telescope in space will revolutionize the study of the universe.
Cradled in the cargo bay of the shuttle Columbia stands a new orbiting observatory that could shed light on some of the most violent processes and darkest mysteries the universe holds.
Using the unique capabilities of the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, astronomers hope to map the distribution of dark matter, peer to the edge of black holes, and answer the mystery of the age of the universe.
"This is an exciting, historic moment for astrophysics," says Alan Bunner, scientist for the Chandra project at NASA.
Astronomers worldwide have flooded officials with requests for observing time on the new telescope, which the Columbia crew will place into orbit sometime after the space shuttle launch next Tuesday.
The first round of observing opportunities drew 800 proposals, of which 200 were approved, says Harvey Tananbaum of the Chandra X-Ray Observatory Center in Cambridge, Mass. "We were oversubscribed by four or five to one," he says.
Dark matter comes to light
Much of the enthusiasm stems from the new light Chandra is expected to shed on the mysterious existence of "dark matter," the mass in the universe which is undetectable except by its gravitational effects.
All matter has gravity, and this attractional pull holds the universe together. Since observable matter does not come close to accounting for all the gravitational effects astronomers observe, scientists have long postulated the existence of dark matter to account for the discrepancy. In fact, it is estimated that 90 percent of the mass of the universe is dark matter. Some explanations for this hidden mass have involved black holes, cosmic strings, and various exotic particles such as weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPS).