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Launch Services Webcast: Swift Science and Spacecraft Overview
John Nousek's Presentation

Host Rex Englehardt: Thank you, Tim. Next up is John Nousek, Swift's mission director.

John is from Penn State, where the Swift mission control center is located. John explains how an international team is going to help every-day astronomers study gamma-ray bursts and how the gamma-ray burst information will get to their home computers.

John Nousek: Hi. My name is John Nousek, I'm the mission director for the Swift mission. I'm also professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State University.

We will be operating the Swift satellite from mission control center located in Penn State's University Park Campus. We will be leading this mission, which has a primary scientific goal of discovering and following up these bright explosions of gamma-ray bursts which come about once a day and fill the universe with their radiation for a matter of seconds and then fade into invisibility.

So our mission control center has to agilely support these activities. Although the satellite itself is automatic, we have to re-plan a whole week of operations based on these brand new discoveries, and we will be doing that in a matter of hours after these explosions occur.

Now from these explosions, from the information we learn -- we think we'll probably see one every few days, perhaps two or three a week -- from that information, we will build up a whole new archive of knowledge that we think will be ten, one hundred, maybe even a thousand times more gamma-ray bursts will be discovered by Swift and followed up in detail than we've been able to do before. And of course, we're instantly sending this information out to the entire world.

We have more than 40 observatories across the world, both ground-based and space-based, that have promised to study gamma-ray bursts based on Swift data. Swift also uses two techniques for getting date from the satellite to our control center at Penn State, and then from Penn State to the Goddard Space Flight Center where data are distributed to the whole world through the science data center.

These data are very important because they're the first data we'll get after a burst, but this pathway is a very low-volume pathway. So our main volume of data comes from one tracking station that's located in a place called Malindi in the country of Kenya on the Indian Ocean. These data come only when the Swift satellite is in view of this tracking station, so about 10 or 12 times a day, the satellite will be passing over the Malindi tracking station and during this time, millions of bits of information per second will be dumped from the satellite to Malindi, where it then gets relayed up to Italy and then over to the United States.

Speed in getting information out to the public is really paramount in all of our minds, not just for the information content but also because important discoveries can be made by a whole range of people -- from professional astronomers, really including astronomers that are amateur astronomers, as well. That's because these gamma-ray bursts, their optical counterparts, actually can be quite bright and it's quite possible that when a burst is discovered by Swift that amateur astronomers can participate by using their home telescope systems to actually catch these gamma-ray bursts while they're very bright.

So we plan to have a subscription service whereby people can subscribe to Internet messages to get a page or other type of rapid information telling them that a burst has gone off and telling them they can go and use their own home telescopes if conditions are suitable to actually study these brand new events. So our job is to explain the information, make it available instantly to them and then participate with them in the study of this fascinating phenomenon.