UW professor contributes to ASTRO-H mission

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Hitomi, also known as ASTRO-H, an international space-based satellite observatory, was launched Feb. 17 into Earth orbit from the Tanegashima Space Centre in Japan.&nbsp;</p>

This mission is an international collaboration in which Brian McNamara, a UW professor at the department of physics and astronomy, is one of the three participating scientists from Canada. 

“As a result of my contributions to the development of the science for this telescope, I and my students in post-doc get to analyze some of the first data to come from the telescope,” McNamara said. 

“Thankfully, it launched. Everything seems to be working — we’re actually detecting cosmic X-rays and we hope to see data sometime in the next couple of weeks.”

The ASTRO-H is an X-ray space telescope developed by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency with contributions from the United States, Europe, and Canada. Its purpose is to observe natural forms of X-ray radiation coming from astronomical objects such as black holes and hot gases in galaxies. Through the Canadian Space Agency, Canada provided the Canadian ASTRO-H Metrology System — a laser alignment system for the observatory’s instruments. In return, Canada was able to secure positions for three scientists, including McNamara, to represent Canada in the Science Working Group — a team of scientists from all around the world who are involved in defining the scientific mission of the telescope. 

Cosmic X-rays can only be observed above the Earth’s atmosphere.

“Our atmosphere is opaque to X-rays, which is a very good thing, because they’re harmful to people. So we launch [satellites] into space and use them to study black holes, galaxies, clusters of galaxies, and the very hot gases that surround them,” McNamara said.

McNamara will be using ASTRO-H to study black holes at the centre of galaxy clusters, as black holes do not behave in a cosmic context the same way they behave in a controlled setting. 

According to McNamara, while materials that are dropped into a black hole past the event horizon in an isolated situation are lost to the universe, matter rarely strikes them head on. Instead, most of the matter that comes into the vicinity of the black hole ends up swirling around at very high speeds before being ejected outward into the galaxy.

“Over the last 15 years, what we learned is this material getting ejected out of the galaxy actually regulates how fast galaxies grow,” McNamara said. “We think that in many of these galaxies, the black holes actually control how these galaxies are born in the world.”

Through the ASTRO-H mission, McNamara hopes to study how much energy is emitted from a black hole and the scale of the energy’s impact. 

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