Astronomers in Japan, using an X-ray detector on the International Space Station, and at Penn State University, using NASA’s Swift space observatory, are announcing the discovery of an object newly emitting X-rays, which previously had been hidden inside our Milky Way galaxy in the constellation Centaurus.
The object — a binary system — was revealed recently when an instrument on the International Space Station named MAXI (Monitor of All-Sky X-ray Image) on the Exposed Facility of the Japanese Experiment Module “Kibo” caught it in the act of erupting with a massive blast of X-rays known as an X-ray nova. The MAXI mission team quickly alerted astronomers worldwide to the discovery of the new X-ray source at 2:00 a.m. EDT on 20 October, and NASA’s Swift Observatory quickly conducted an urgent “target-of-opportunity” observation nine hours later, which allowed for the location of the X-ray nova to be measured accurately.
“The collaboration between the MAXI and Swift teams allowed us to quickly and accurately identify this new object,” said Jamie Kennea, the Swift X-ray Telescope instrument scientist at Penn State University who is leading the Swift analysis. “MAXI and Swift’s abilities are uniquely complementary, and in this case have provided a discovery that would not have been possible without combining the knowledge obtained from both.”
The Swift detection confirmed the presence of the previously unknown bright X-ray source, which was named MAXI J1409-619. “The Swift observation suggests that this source is probably a neutron star or a black hole with a massive companion star located at a distance of a few tens of thousands of light years from Earth in the Milky Way,” said David Burrows, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State and the lead scientist for Swift’s X-ray Telescope. “The contribution of Swift’s X-ray Telescope to this discovery is that it can swing into position rapidly to focus on a particular point in the sky and it can image the sky with high sensitivity and high spatial resolution.”
“MAXI has demonstrated its capability to discover X-ray novae at great distances,” said Kazutaka Yamaoka, assistant professor at Aoyama Gakuin University and a member of the MAXI team. “The MAXI team is planning further coordinated observations with NASA satellites to reveal the identity of this source.”
High-resolution images associated with this research are online at http://www.science.psu.edu/news-and-events/2010-news/Nousek10-2010
David Burrows, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at Penn State and the lead scientist for Swift’s X-ray Telescope: (+1) 814 865-7707, [email protected]
Jamie Kennea, Swift X-ray Telescope instrument scientist at Penn State: (+1) 814-865-0234, [email protected]
Neil Gehrels, Chief of the Astroparticle Physics Laboratory and Swift principal investigator at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center: (+1) 301-286-6546, [email protected]
Barbara K. Kennedy (Penn State PIO): 814-863-4682, [email protected]
Lynn Cominsky (Swift PIO): 707-664-2655, [email protected]
MORE ABOUT THE SWIFT OBSERVATORY: The Swift observatory was launched in November 2004 and was fully operational by January 2005. Swift carries three main instruments: the Burst Alert Telescope, the X-ray Telescope, and the Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope. Its science and science and flight operations are controlled by Penn State from the Mission Operations Center in State College, Pennsylvania. Swift’s gamma-ray detector, the Burst Alert Telescope, provides the rapid initial location and was built primarily by the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and constructed at GSFC. Swift’s X-Ray Telescope and UV/Optical Telescope were developed and built by international teams led by Penn State and drew heavily on each institution’s experience with previous space missions. The X-ray Telescope resulted from Penn State’s collaboration with the University of Leicester in the United Kingdom and the Brera Astronomical Observatory in Italy. The Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope resulted from Penn State’s collaboration with the Mullard Space Science Laboratory of the University College-London. These three telescopes give Swift the ability to do almost immediate follow-up observations of most gamma-ray bursts because Swift can rotate so quickly to point toward the source of the gamma-ray signal. The spacecraft was built by a company then called General Dynamics, which now is called Orbital Sciences Corporation.
MORE ABOUT THE MAXI TEAM: The MAXI team, a Japanese collaboration of JAXA, RIKEN, Osaka University, Tokyo Institute of Technology, Aoyama Gakuin University, Nihon University, Kyoto University, Miyazaki University, and Chuo University, is collaborating with the international Swift Team, led by Neil Gehrels at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Ceneter, as well as with the Japanese X-ray satellite Suzaku.