The Swiftest Satellite

This spring, we were delighted to have John Nousek discuss the mission of the Swift satellite and Penn State's role in its operation to the Research Unplugged audience. Nousek, professor of astronomy and astrophysics, serves as both the Mission Director for the Swift Gamma Ray Burst Explorer satellite and the Principal Investigator for all Penn State activities related to Swift.

close-up photo of John Nousek in his lab
Frederic Weber

John Nousek

Explained Nousek, gamma-ray bursts were first discovered in 1969 by Ray Klebesadel of the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory while seeking covert Soviet nuclear weapons testing. It was eventually recognized that gamma-ray bursts are, in fact, closely related to extreme explosions of energy taking place in far off galaxies; they are known to be the brightest electromagnetic events in the universe.

Swift was launched on November 20, 2004 in order to investigate the nature of gamma-ray bursts, specifically within the early moments of explosion. It is managed by NASA, and is part of an international consortium between the U.S., U.K., and Italy.

Nousek explained that the Swift Mission Operation Center (MOC) is operated by Penn State University and located just off-campus in State College, Pennsylvania.
He added that MOC includes the Flight Operations Team (responsible for observatory health and safety) and the Science Operations Team (responsible for the scientific operation of Swift). Swift is currently still operating under the control of MOC. Some of its more notable accomplishments to-date include capturing the first ever "normal" supernova in the act of exploding, detecting the most distant cosmic explosion ever seen at the time, and detecting over 500 gamma-ray bursts.

Said Nousek, in the future Swift's objectives include measuring star formation within the first billion years, finding the quasars that re-ionized the universe, and studying the history of the earliest creations of life within the Universe.

More about the investigation of gamma ray bursts >

More about John Nousek, professor of astronomy and astrophysics >

Last Updated May 18, 2011