NASA Launches New Space Telescope
The GLAST spacecraft and Delta 2 rocket leap off the launch pad.
Credit: NASA TV

NASA?s newest space telescope aimed at glimpsing the unexplored universe blasted into space Wednesday morning.

The Gamma-ray Large Area Telescope (GLAST), lifted off atop a Delta 2 rocket from Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Station at 12:05 p.m. EDT (1605 GMT). The launch was delayed by about 20 minutes due to a long-range tracking glitch. Now the nearly five-ton observatory is headed for an orbit about 345 miles (555 km) above Earth.

GLAST includes two main telescopes designed to scan the sky in gamma-ray light - the most energetic region of the electromagnetic spectrum, far beyond the visible range of the human eye.

"Astrophysicists couldn't be happier about the launch of GLAST and the discoveries it will make," said Jon Morse, director of NASA?s astrophysics division at the agency?s headquarters in Washington, D.C. "We're really at a unique time in the history of science and of astronomy, that we can study the cosmos across the entire electromagnetic spectrum for the first time ? GLAST is one of those missions where we're extending our reach significantly."

Scientists hope the telescope will help solve some of most befuddling cosmic mysteries, such as the nature of dark matter, the workings of black holes, and the mechanics of lighthouse-like spinning pulsars.

Since GLAST will open up a window on a previously unexplored energy range in the universe, it will truly be venturing into uncharted territory.

"I'm expecting that the most important science GLAST is going to do is actually not yet on anybody's list," said Steven Ritz, a GLAST project scientist and astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. "What we're very excited about are the surprises."

The $690 million telescope is the result of almost two decades of work by scores of scientists around the world, including researchers in the United States, France, Germany, Japan, Sweden and Italy.

"GLAST is a unique collaboration between particle physicists and astrophysicists across six countries," said Julie McEnery, GLAST's deputy project scientist, before the launch on Wednesday. "Together we've been able to work to produce an extraordinary observatory with special instruments to detect gamma rays with superb accuracy."

Today's successful launch comes as a relief to eager scientists who have been waiting for the telescope to lift off since its original intended launch date, May 16. GLAST's voyage has been postponed repeatedly because of delays in preparing the observatory as well as issues with the rocket that is slated to deliver it to space.

Once it arrives in orbit and sheds its casing, the telescope will unfurl giant solar array wings to provide it with power. It will start relaying data down to Earth within a few minutes, mission managers said, and for the first couple of weeks the ground team will perform tests to ensure the observatory is in good health.

  • Video: GLAST Cast ? Part 1
  • Video: GLAST Cast ? Part 2
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