Chandra: Read about NASA’s advanced X-ray observatory and the Indian scientist it is named after

Chandra: Read about NASA's advanced X-ray observatory and the Indian scientist it is named after


People who live on Earth have long been fascinated by what is in space or what specifically occurs there at particular times. Numerous scientists, space agencies, and organizations from nations including Russia, the US, Europe, China, Japan, and India have carried out numerous space missions to date in an effort to satisfy humanity’s insatiable curiosity. These missions have explored vast possibilities and opportunities for life to one day exist in the universe.

Human-made items are now capable of travelling to Mars and the Moon, the only natural satellite of the Earth, thanks to the work of scientists from all around the world. To date around 50 spacecraft missions have been launched to Mars and around 146 have been launched to the Moon. These missions however include the number of failed ones. The number also includes flybys, impact probes, orbiters, landers, and rovers, on both Mars and the Moon and crewed missions only to the Moon.

Recently, India launched its third lunar mission, Chandrayaan 3, and witnessed its successful attempt at a soft landing on the surface of the Moon on August 23. Post-landing the spacecraft has begun its investigation into the elemental composition of the Earth’s only natural satellite, its surface plasma environment, lunar seismicity, and thermophysical features.

Telescope missions launched to get a clearer view of the Universe

Along with spacecraft, many telescope missions have also been launched into space by countries like Russia, the USA, Europe, and China. Telescopes are launched into orbit around the Earth to get a clearer view of the Universe, unobstructed by the earth’s atmosphere. Space telescopes are of a variety of shapes and sizes some of which are employed to investigate unique objects, such as the Sun while others are employed to investigate different types of light emitted by space objects.

The most famous orbital telescope is the Hubble Telescope launched in 1990, which has given us stunning visuals of galaxies billions of light years away. Another well-known space telescope is the recently launched James Webb Space Telescope featuring a massive 6.5 metre gold-plated mirror, which was launched in December 2021 and reached its orbit at L2 Lagrange point in January 2022.

One such space telescope was launched by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in the year 1999 to make space-based observations and notably its mission is ongoing as of 2023. Chandra X-ray Observatory, a Flagship-class space telescope is an Earth satellite in a 64-hour orbit and is named after the Nobel Prize-winning Indian-American astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar.

Chandra was launched in the year 1999 (Image- California Science Center)

One of the four major observatories built by NASA and launched between 1999 and 2003, Chandra uses a variety of technologies to study a particular region of space’s energy. The other three great observatory space telescopes launched by NASA are the Hubble Space Telescope, the Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, and the Spitzer Space Telescope (2003–2020). 

Chandra X-ray Observatory was launched into space by Space Shuttle Columbia in July 1999 and was originally known as the Advanced X-ray Astrophysics Facility before its launch. The name Chandra X-ray Observatory was chosen after NASA started a contest to name the X-Ray Observatory, which received over six thousand entries.

How Chandra operates

Currently orbiting the planet, the Chandra X-ray Observatory is looking through the cosmos for signs of extremely high-temperature occurrences in space. These occurrences emit X-rays, a form of highly energized light that cannot be perceived by the human eye. As per the reports, Chandra helps astronomers study the X-rays that apparently cannot travel through the Earth’s atmosphere.

The Chandra gathers X-rays, some from as distant as 10 billion light years away, and employs a high-resolution camera (HRC) to translate them into images. Additionally, the Chandra is equipped with equipment that can gauge X-ray intensity and temperature.

The Chandra comprises barrel-shaped mirrors with reflecting surfaces that run practically parallel to the X-rays given that X-rays would be absorbed right into the dish-shaped mirrors generally employed in telescopes that monitor visible light. The X-rays are focussed onto a point that is roughly half the width of a human hair and barely bounce off the mirrors before being recorded and quantified.

X-ray telescopes are crucial because they enable astronomers and scientists to observe phenomena in space that are typically hidden from the normal human view. Further, an X-ray telescope can see high-energy phenomena like massive explosions, black holes, and neutron stars in much greater detail and is also capable of adding an extra dimension to objects in space that also give off visible light.

Six cosmos mages captured by Chandra (Image- California Science Centre)

The Chandra, which bears the name of Nobel laureate Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, orbits the planet up to 200 times higher than the Hubble—roughly one-third the moon’s distance! Notably, Chandra is the third of NASA’s four outstanding observatories created to study the cosmos from Earth’s orbit. 

How was Chandra given its name?

Chandra was proposed to NASA in the year 1976 by Riccardo Giacconi and Harvey Tananbaum and was called as Advanced X-ray Astrophysics Facility (AXAF). While the project’s preliminary work was ongoing, NASA launched Einstein (HEAO-2), the first imaging X-ray telescope, into orbit in 1978. The AXAF project was modified to an elliptical one, which at its farthest point would go one-third of the distance to the Moon. It became the US follow-on to the Einstein Observatory launched in the year 1999.

AXAF was renamed Chandra as part of a competition launched by NASA in 1998 that attracted more than 6,000 proposals from all across the world. The name was proposed by the contest winners, Tyrel Johnson and Jatila van der Veen, in honor of the Indian-American physicist and Nobel Prize winner Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar. Chandrasekhar is renowned for his work in figuring out the white dwarf star’s maximum mass, which contributed to the comprehension of high-energy astronomical phenomena like neutron stars and black holes.

Lalitha Chandrasekhar (left) with contest winners Jatila van der Veen (center) and Tyrel Johnson (right) (Image- Chandra chronicles)

Theoretical physicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar shared the 1983 Nobel Prize in Physics with William A. Fowler for “theoretical studies of the physical processes important to the structure and evolution of the stars.” Many of the current theoretical models of the final evolutionary stages of big stars and black holes are based on his mathematical analysis of stellar evolution. Many concepts, entities, and technological advances bear his name, including as the Chandrasekhar limit and the Chandra X-Ray Observatory.

He also demonstrated the Chandrasekhar limit, which states that a white dwarf’s mass cannot be greater than 1.44 times that of the Sun. Chandra published ten books and later served as the editor of the prominent Astrophysical Journal for nineteen years. The Chandra X-Ray Observatory was named in his honor 4 years after his death, in the year 1999.

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar awarded with Nobel Prize (Image-

Chandra and its ongoing mission as of 2023

The telescope was originally scheduled to be launched in December 1998 but was launched on July 23, 1999, by Space Shuttle Columbia orbiter. It has been providing statistics and returning data since the first month of its launch. The Chandra X-ray Centre in Cambridge, Massachusetts operates the telescope with support from MIT and Northrop Grumman Space Technology.

Despite having a 5-year planned lifespan when it initially launched, NASA chose to extend Chandra’s life in 2001 owing to the observatory’s exceptional performance. The Chandra X-ray Centre conducted a study in 2004 that suggested the observatory may operate for at least 15 years. Notably, its mission is still ongoing as of 2023.

Chandra since its launch has sent plenty of images featuring the Solar System, stars, exoplanets, white Dwarfs, supernovas, neutron stars, black holes, galaxies, quasars, and also galaxy clusters. it continues to send clear pictures of particulates in space assisting astronomers to study the Universe closely and conduct further research.

The recent ones sent by the telescope include eye-catching images of an elliptical galaxy that is 55 million light-years away in the Virgo Cluster, Black Hole Pairs about 760 million light-years away, and also a spiral galaxy located about 32 million light-years from Earth.

Black Hole Pairs discovered by NASA’s Chandra

On August 22, Chandra informed the astronomers about a tidal disruption event that happened about 290 million miles away from Earth. “A giant black hole destroyed a large star and threw its wreckage into space,” the official Twitter (X) handle of the Chandra Observatory said. It also added that the star was about three times the mass of our Sun, making the one of the largest “tidal disruption events” yet discovered.

Black holes, supernova remnants, starburst galaxies, and a variety of strange objects at the farthest reaches of the universe are Chandra’s main research interests. Chandra also discovered that starburst galaxies have a disproportionately higher number of intermediate-size black holes that descend to the centre of the galaxy, where they combine with one another. 

Galaxies and strange objects discovered by Chandra (Image-

Chandra discovered a record-breaking outburst from the Milky Way’s supermassive black hole, known as Sagittarius A, or Sgr A, in 2013. At the time, astronomers were studying how Sgr A* might respond to what was initially thought to be a cloud of gas but was subsequently discovered to be a cloud enclosing a compact object.

Chandra also was one of several telescopes that detected a high-energy light pulse from a massive explosion triggered by two merging neutron stars in 2017. Observations with the National Science Foundation’s Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) then discovered gravitational waves associated with the collision, prompting scientists to search for evidence of the explosion’s aftermath.

NASA Missions Catching First Light from a gravitational-wave event (Image- NASA)

Chandra is even assisting humans in preparing for journeys to other star systems. Chandra presented the findings of a decade-long study of Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system to the sun, in 2018. According to the reports, the triple star system is a little over four light-years away from Earth and is the goal of programs such as Breakthrough Starshot, which wants to launch a swarm of nanocrafts to the system in search of potentially life-bearing stars.

Chandra presenting study of Alpha Centauri (NASA)

Chandra’s mission, which was supposed to last five years but was later extended to at least ten, is still operational after more than 23 years. According to Chandra’s operators interviewed in 2018, the instrument continues to have adequate power and propulsion system reserves to endure for a few more years, assisting astronomers with abundant space inputs to ultimately conduct research and explore vast possibilities and opportunities for life to one day survive in another supposed parallel world. 


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