NASA Unveils Amazing Cosmic Views as Chandra X-Ray Observatory Turns 20

It's been 20 years since NASA's Chandra X-Ray Observatory launched to give us the sharpest-ever view of X-rays — and the telescope is still working at the frontier of science, the agency said.

The observatory, named after the late Nobel laureate Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, an Indian American astrophysicist, launched on July 23, 1999. It hitched a ride to space aboard the shuttle Columbia and has orbited Earth and watched the sky ever since. To commemorate the big anniversary, NASA recently released six new Chandra images, showing everything from the light from infant stars to the structure of huge galaxy clusters.

"Chandra remains peerless in its ability to find and study X-ray sources," Belinda Wilkes, Chandra X-ray Center director, said in a statement. "Since virtually every astronomical source emits X-rays, we need a telescope like Chandra to fully view and understand our universe."

Related: X-Ray Universe: Amazing Photos by the Chandra X-Ray Observatory

Chandra's mission has evolved with our understanding of space. When it launched two decades ago, only a handful of exoplanets were known; today, Chandra routinely looks at how the radiation of stars affects the planets orbiting them. Gravitational waves (massive ripples in space-time) were only theory in 1999, but now Chandra observes the outcome of black hole mergers and other events that produce them.

The telescope is also engaged in observations that haven't yet made that transition, like the study of dark energy, a poorly understood phenomenon believed to make up much of our universe.

The idea for Chandra dates back more than 40 years, to the original proposal by Riccardo Giacconi and Harvey Tananbaum in 1976. Giacconi received the 2002 Nobel Prize for Physics due to his contributions in X-ray astronomy, and Tananbaum was the first director of the Chandra X-Ray Center, which operates the instrument.

The telescope is working well today after bouncing back from a gyroscope glitch in late 2018. It is expected to continue operations through at least 2024, with a possibility of two three-year contract options following that.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell, Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022. She was contributing writer for Space.com (opens in new tab) for 10 years before that, since 2012. Elizabeth's reporting includes an exclusive with Office of the Vice-President of the United States, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and (soon) a Bachelor of History from Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science since 2015. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace