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Up, Up and Away


Although Harvard and Smithsonian astronomers share a complex near the Radcliffe Quad--the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA)--Cambridge's cloudy skies force them to go elsewhere to observe the stars.

Scientists from both institutions frequently cooperate on astronomy experiments such as the Energetic X-ray Imaging Telescope Experiment (EXITE) in Alice Springs, Australia.

EXITE, part of a NASA Balloon and Rocket Campaign to observe a supernova, number 1987A, launched a balloon carrying a telescope into the atmosphere to detect high energy x-rays emitted from the exploded star. The launching was scheduled to take place at the end of April.

In an interview before he went to Australia for the project, Professor of Astronomy Jonathan E. Grindlay said he expected the balloon to rise approximately 130,000 feet, above 99.7 percent of the earth's atmosphere.

"The balloon is a scientific research baloon, an enormous, very thin plastic bag about 600 feet high--about as high as the Prudential Building," he says.

Supernova 1987A produced high amounts of radioactive nickel which decayed into radioactive cobalt in a week. This cobalt is still decaying, producing a prodigious quantity of gamma rays and x-rays. The experiment will measure the x-rays emitted by the supernova.

"We will be able to study production of elements in exploding stars," Grindlay says.

The idea for the balloon telescope was developed at Harvard, but it was built and designed by a team of Smithsonian engineers, says James Cornell, CfA publications manager. NASA paid for the project.

The CfA balloon will be one of six such vehicles observing the supernova, Grindlay says, adding that each balloon flight takes between one and two days.

The Harvard balloon team includes Harvard graduate student Corbin Covault, a Brazilian graduate student doing thesis research at Harvard, visiting grad student Joao Braga and a group of three to four Smithsonian engineers. who designed and built the telescope and gondola, and Grindlay.

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