Observatory Earns $87M Contract

NASA Picks Cambridge Laboratory With Close Harvard Ties for Space Center

The federal government has signed an estimated $86.7 million contract with a local observatory with close ties to Harvard to develop a center for supervising a telescope studying blackholes, quasars, supernovas and dark matter, the University announced last week.

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is entering final negotiations with the local Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory to develop a center for the supervision and guidance of AXAF--Advanced X-ray Astrophysics Facility--an orbiting x-ray telescope planned for launch in 1998.

"We are delighted to have been chosen to develop this center," said Dr. Irwin I. Shapiro, director of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophyics (CFA), in a news release dated March 25. "Especially because the broad range of astrophysical research already in progress at the CFA provides the potential for important interdisciplinary collaborations." The observatory is a member of the CFA.

The new telescope will enable scientists to study a number of current astronomical problems. According to physical laws, there is more matter in the universe than can be currently detected. AXAF may provide insight into the dark or missing part of the universe, experts hope. AXAF will also be used to study supernovas--the remnants after a star explodes--and to measure distances to far away galaxies.

For scientists, AXAF will offer two advances over current x-ray telescopes. According to Harvey Tananbaum, associate director at CFA, the new telescope "will be able to take sharper pictures, detecting fainter, more distant sources." Also, AXAF will remain in orbit for 15 years, in contrast to current telescopes, which function for only a year or two.


Until the launch of the telescope in 1998, the observatory will assist in the planning and development of AXAF. After that the observatory will also become a "central clearinghouse" for information sent from the satellite.

In the news release, Tananbaum said, "The main function of the science center will be to provide a bridge between the international scientific community and the orbiting x-ray telescope."

"The space-based AXAF observatory will be the primary facility in x-ray astronomy for the coming generation of astronomers, and the AXAF Science Center, in turn, will ensure that researchers are able to get the utmost information from their satellite investigations," he added.

Once up, Tananbaum said yesterday, AXAF will provide a "library" of information, providing students with data for projects and these, and ongoing opportunities for Harvard faculty as well