The Japanese Astro-H space telescope has been successfully launched

The Astro-H space telescope blasting off atop an H-IIA rocket (Image courtesy JAXA)
The Astro-H space telescope blasting off atop an H-IIA rocket (Image courtesy JAXA)

A little while ago the Japanese Astro-H space telescope was launched from the Tanegashima Space Center on a H-IIA rocket. After about fifteen minutes it regularly separated from the rocket’s last stage. It will reach the low-Earth orbit, where it will be positioned at an altitude of about 575 kilometers (about 357 miles).

The Astro-H space telescope is a mission run by JAXA, the Japanese space agency, with an investment of 31 billion yen – about $265 million or almost 245 million Euros – but other institutions such as NASA and ESA are collaborating. It was developed as a successor to the Suzaku space telescope, launched in 2005, a previous instrument specialized for X-ray astronomy. Astro-H is equipped with four telescopes covering various levels of energy from 0.3 keV to 600 keV from low and high-energy X-rays up to low-energy gamma rays.

The possibility of observing high-energy electromagnetic waves will allow the Astro-H telescope to study the most extreme conditions in the universe to tell us more about its structure and evolution. This space telescope will make observations in a broader spectrum compared to NASA’s Chandra and ESA’s XMM-Newton. Thus, it will obtain high-resolution images of larger sources in X-ray frequencies such as galaxy clusters.

To make high-definition X-ray observations, the Astro-H space telescope’s Soft X-ray Spectrometer (SXS) instrument, supplied by NASA, is to be kept at 0.05° above absolute zero. To obtain such a low temperature a liquid helium cryogenic technology is used. The SXS instrument represents a step forward in the construction of X-ray spectrometers.

The technology that uses liquid helium had already been used by JAXA for previous missions but things didn’t go well. In 2000, the Astro-E space telescope was destroyed shortly after blasting off for a problem to the carrier rocket. A problem to the Suzaku space telescope’s cooling system exhausted the liquid helium faster than expected limiting the that telescope’s observing possibilities.

With its instruments, the Astro-H Space Telescope will investigate high energy events to help us better understand extreme conditions in the universe. Its observations will also be useful for the investigation on dark matter and energy. The space telescopes that use cryogenic technologies work fully for a limited time because liquid helium gets exausted after some time. The primary mission of Astro-H has an expected duration of three years, at which point JAXA will assess in time what instruments can still be used.

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