NASA Primes Gamma-Ray Space Telescope for Launch
An artist's interpretation of the GLAST gamma ray observatory in orbit.
Credit: NASA.

NASA?s newest space telescope is gearing up for a planned June 3 launch to hunt for the most extreme and energetic objects in the universe.

The Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope (GLAST) is poised to launch spaceward atop a Delta 2 rocket at 11:45 a.m. EDT (1545 GMT) next Tuesday from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.

Mission scientists hope the new $690 million gamma ray observatory will hunt down the origins of cosmic rays and shed new light on the mysteries of dark matter, supermassive black holes and pulsars among others. The space telescope is also built to help track gamma ray bursts - the most powerful explosions in the universe ? and, researchers hope, help scientists test the laws of physics while seeking out new ones.

?We?re getting pretty excited about the launch next week,? said Peter Michelson, principal investigator for GLAST?s Large Area Telescope at Stanford University, in a Tuesday teleconference.

The 9,487-pound (4,303-kg) space telescope was originally slated to lift off on May 16, but NASA was forced to postpone the launch due to equipment damage caused during the installation of the second stage of GLAST?s Delta 2 rocket.

GLAST carries two primary telescopes to scan the entire night sky every three hours in the gamma ray range, a region of the spectrum beyond the visible range of the human eye. Its five-year mission will join NASA?s Swift gamma ray telescope and Europe?s Integral satellite in orbit, and follows the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, which de-orbited in 2000.

?The gamma ray sky is incredibly variable,? said GLAST project scientist Steve Ritz of NASA?s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. ?Things are changing all the time.?

The observatory?s Large Area Telescope is designed to map gamma ray sources in unprecedented detail, which researchers hope will trace the origins of signals discovered earlier by previous spacecraft.

A second tool, the GLAST Burst Detector, is expected to serve as a gamma ray burst lookout. It should automatically alert researchers on Earth when an explosion is detected or swing the entire observatory around to aim its main telescope at the event, mission scientists said.

But it is the lure of the unknown finds that could stem from GLAST that has some mission scientists chomping at the bit.

?The most important thing for us is the surprises that we expect to find,? Ritz said.

The GLAST observatory has a nearly two-hour window to launch from the Air Force Station next Tuesday, but only if NASA?s space shuttle Discovery launches on time this Saturday from agency?s nearby Kennedy Space Center. The Eastern launch range that includes the Air Force Station and KSC typically requires about 48 hours between launches to reset for a new space shot.

Discovery is poised to launch toward the International Space Station at 5:02 p.m. EDT (2102 GMT) on Saturday carrying Japan?s massive Kibo module, a new research laboratory the size of a large tour bus.

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