Beyond the Light

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Beyond the Light
05.11.07
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NARRATOR: The Chandra X-ray Observatory orbits high above the Earth, peering into the blackest reaches of space.

Exploring the most menacing and magnificent features of the cosmos, this remarkable telescope is revealing what our eyes can't, taking us beyond visible light.

Chandra is NASA's flagship X-ray astronomy mission, providing a window into a universe where the most powerful phenomena both flicker in the darkness and shine brightly.

DR. HARVEY TANANBAUM: Some of these things, when you see them for the first time, you make the discovery, you make the breakthroughs, and it may be that, that we’re at a particularly special point in time where these key discoveries are made and, once we understand them, we've made certain incredible breakthroughs of our understanding of, of the universe and the laws of physics that govern the universe.

NARRATOR: The gleaming Chandra is a member of NASA's Great Observatories -- a constellation of extremely powerful space-based telescopes orbiting the planet.

The goal of this program is simple but ambitious: to scan the depths of space in search of answers to astronomy's greatest questions.

Astronomers examine the universe mainly through four forms of light: infrared, gamma, visible and X-ray light.

Studying objects like stars through each type of light reveals new features about them.

In a way, it's like looking at space through all of the possible colors to get the most detailed and beautiful picture possible.

The Chandra observatory specializes in examining the skies through the most powerful form of light: X-rays.

DR. JEREMY DRAKE: Chandra has now taught us that we can use X-rays to go and search out stellar nurseries, work out where stars are forming in our own galaxy and in other galaxies.

NARRATOR: X-ray light is particularly helpful in cutting through stellar haze and tracing intensely destructive events like the explosion of stars.

A cooperative of scientists from organizations including NASA and the Smithsonian designed the Chandra X-ray Observatory to be a black hole hunter and explore high-energy regions of space.

The observatory was named after Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar - a Nobel-prize-winning astrophysicist who studied the structure and evolution of stars.

After decades of development, NASA lifted Chandra into space aboard Space Shuttle Columbia on July 23, 1999.

LISA MALONE: Three. We have a go for engine start. Zero. We have booster ignition and liftoff of Columbia, reaching new heights for women and X-ray astronomy.

NARRATOR: Only eight hours after launch, springs gently push Chandra from Columbia's payload bay, sending the new telescope on its way.

ASTRONAUT EILEEN COLLINS: I will tell you, there is nothing as beautiful as Chandra sailing off on its way to work.

NARRATOR: Twenty-seven days later, Chandra opened its sunshade to see into an ancient supernova but also an entirely new X-ray universe.

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