Chandra X-ray Observatory - History


In 1976 the Chandra X-ray Observatory (called AXAF at the time) was proposed to NASA by Riccardo Giacconi and Harvey Tananbaum. Preliminary work began the following year at Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO). In the meantime, in 1978, NASA launched the first imaging X-ray telescope, Einstein (HEAO-2), into orbit. Work continued on the Chandra project through 1980s and 1990s. In 1992, to reduce costs, the spacecraft was redesigned. Four of the twelve planned mirrors were eliminated, as were two of the six scientific instruments. Chandra's planned orbit was changed to an elliptical one, reaching one third of the way to the Moon's at its farthest point. This eliminated the possibility of improvement or repair by the space shuttle but put the observatory above the Earth's radiation belts for most of its orbit.

AXAF was renamed Chandra in 1998 and launched in 1999 by the shuttle Columbia (STS-93). At 22,753 kg, it was the heaviest payload ever launched by the shuttle, a consequence of the two-stage Inertial Upper Stage booster rocket system needed to transport the spacecraft to its high orbit..

Chandra has been returning data since the month after it launched. It is operated by the SAO at the Chandra X-ray Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, with assistance from MIT and Northrop Grumman Space Technology. The ACIS CCDs suffered particle damage during early radiation belt passages. To prevent further damage, the instrument is now removed from the telescope's focal plane during passages.

Although Chandra was initially given an expected lifetime of 5 years, on 4 September 2001 NASA extended its lifetime to 10 years "based on the observatory's outstanding results." Physically Chandra could last much longer. A study performed at the Chandra X-ray Center indicated that the observatory could last at least 15 years. In July 2008, the International X-ray Observatory, a joint project between ESA, NASA and JAXA, was proposed as the next major X-ray observatory but was later cancelled. Its expected launch date would have been 2020.

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