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Copernicus From NASA Set the Standard For Space Astronomy Fifty Years Ago

The Copernicus satellite was the largest and most sophisticated space observatory of its time

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Russell Chattaraj
Russell Chattaraj
Mechanical engineering graduate, writes about science, technology and sports, teaching physics and mathematics, also played cricket professionally and passionate about bodybuilding.

UNITED STATES: On August 21, 1972, NASA launched the Copernicus satellite into orbit from Launch Complex 36B which is now Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. The Copernicus satellite was the largest and most sophisticated space observatory of its time.

Following its ascent into orbit, Orbiting Astronomical Observatory (OAO) was renamed OAO 3 to reflect modern usage. In addition, it was given a new name to recognise Nicolaus Copernicus’ 500th birthday (1473–1543). The Polish astronomer broke with 1,300 years of tradition and started a scientific revolution by developing a theory of the solar system in which the Sun, not Earth, is in the centre.

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The largest ultraviolet telescope ever orbited and four co-aligned X-ray sensors were features of Copernicus, possibly NASA’s first specifically designed multi wavelength astronomy observatory. The NASA Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory, which observes the sky in the visible, ultraviolet, and X-ray spectrum, may be seen as a predecessor of modern space telescopes as a result.

The main equipment on Copernicus was the Princeton Experiment Package, which had a 32-inch (0.8-meter) mirror, almost a third the size of Hubble’s. The instrument, directed by Lyman Spitzer Jr. of Princeton University in New Jersey, uncovered hitherto undiscovered information on interstellar gas and the ionised outflows of burning stars.

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Its initial target, the star Zeta Ophiuchi, which is partially hidden by an interstellar cloud, showed strong absorption from hydrogen molecules. Measurements from hundreds of different stars confirmed that the majority of the hydrogen in gas clouds existed in this form, as expected by theoretical models.

The Hubble Space Observatory was ultimately inspired by Spitzer’s 1946 hypotheses about the potential scientific uses of a large orbiting telescope. He conducted research on young stars in cold clouds using the Spitzer Space Telescope, a NASA observatory operational from 2003 to 2020 and named in his honour.

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Only the Sun emitted X-rays when NASA evaluated the Copernicus equipment alternatives. 1962 saw a shift. The team that found Scorpius X-1 was directed by Riccardo Giacconi of American Science and Engineering Inc. in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Innovative X-ray detectors were carried on suborbital rockets. Other missions have discovered additional cosmic sources, such as the star-mass black hole on Cygnus X-1.

Despite being disabled in 1981, Copernicus has nevertheless delivered UV and X-ray observations for 8.25 years. It lost its position at the forefront of space astronomy as more sophisticated observatories, such as Einstein and the International Ultraviolet Explorer, came into being. 650 academic papers make use of Copernicus data. Its tools were used by more than 160 scholars from the US and 13 other nations to analyse 450 items.

Also Read: NASA Collabs with Microchip Tech Inc. to Make Spaceflight Computing Processor

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  • Russell Chattaraj

    Mechanical engineering graduate, writes about science, technology and sports, teaching physics and mathematics, also played cricket professionally and passionate about bodybuilding.

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