Astro News Briefs: November 15–21

Swift Takes Flight at Last

November 20, 2004 | After many months of delays, NASA's Swift high-energy observatory was launched today from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The Delta rocket lifted off at 12:16 p.m. Eastern Standard Time, boosting the satellite into a 600-kilometer-high orbit. Once operational, Swift will rapidly pinpoint enigmatic gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) and then scrutinize their afterglows using X-ray and ultraviolet/visible-light detectors. The satellite is expected to observe several bursts per week. Swift will also perform a sensitive all-sky survey in hard (high-energy) X-rays.

See NASA's Swift Web site for more details.

Europe's SMART 1 Orbits the Moon

November 18, 2004 | The European Space Agency's (ESA) first Small Missions for Advanced Research in Technology spacecraft (SMART 1) has reached lunar orbit after a year in space. On November 11th, after 322 Earth orbits, the spacecraft finally crossed the weak stability region at the L1 Lagrangian point between the Earth and Moon. On November 15th SMART 1 came within 5,000 kilometers of the lunar surface in essentially the most loosely bound lunar orbit ever achieved.

SMART 1's ion-propelled engine — which provides very low thrust for very long durations — will gradually lower the orbital altitude and bind the craft more tightly to the Moon. By January SMART 1 should be looping between 300 and 3,000 km from the lunar surface, at which point its instruments will begin examining the terrain and hunting for ice at the poles.

For more about the mission, visit ESA's SMART 1 Web site.

A Comet Turns On

November 15, 2004 | What began as the routine discovery of a near-Earth asteroid on October 10th took on a curious and dramatic twist a month later when the new find suddenly developed a narrow tail. Franco Mallia, Gianluca Masi, and Roger Wilcox first spotted the pencil-thin appendage in CCD images they'd taken on November 11th with a 0.36-meter reflector at Las Campanas Observatory, Chile. The tail independently turned up in CCD frames taken less than a day later by Juan Lacruz in La Cañada, Spain. No one yet knows what caused the tail to form (two other asteroids-turned-comets, 107P/Wilson-Harrington and 133P/Elst-Pizarro, have been discovered in recent decades). But observers are certain it wasn't there when Rob McNaught first recorded the asteroid, designated 2004 TU12, using a 0.5-meter Schmidt telescope at Australia's Siding Spring Observatory. A preliminary orbit issued by the Minor Planet Center puts Comet Siding Spring (now bearing the official comet designation P/2004 TU12) between the orbits of Earth and Mars, near the perihelion of a looping, 5.3-year-long track. At 14th magnitude, it's too faint to be seen visually in small telescopes.

For more details about Comet Siding Spring, including a time-lapse image sequence, see Masi's Web site:

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