Nation/World

Astronauts Studying The Effects Of Explosion On Interstellar Dust

Like detectives piecing together clues to an ancient mystery, astronomers used Endeavour’s ultraviolet telescopes Saturday to gauge the effects of a star that exploded 20,000 years ago.

Astronauts pointed the shuttle instruments toward a supernova known as the Cygnus Loop so scientists can learn how shock waves from the long-ago explosion are affecting clouds of interstellar dust.

That interaction is believed to be a major factor in how supernova remnants evolve into new stars.

The Cygnus Loop has been observed several times during the flight. It’s so large that astronomers must focus on a different area each time and piece together the results.

There are several theories about what happens to celestial gas clouds when they’re hit and heated up by supernova shock waves. The clouds might be crushed, ripped apart or simply evaporated.

“We’re hoping to be able to discriminate between those three possibilities in this one case,” said John Raymond, an astronomer working with one of the shuttle instruments, the Hopkins Ultraviolet Telescope.

Data from the telescope should tell scientists the temperature, density and chemical composition of the shock wave as it passes through interstellar gas.

Mission scientist Charles Meegan said about 180 celestial observations were made through the first 10 days of the flight. Astronomers have a menu of some 600 stars, galaxies, quasars and other objects to choose from before the shuttle’s scheduled landing next Friday.

Also Saturday, the astronauts answered a few more questions posed to them on the Internet.

One cyberspace traveler from Concord, Mass., asked what the spaceship smells like.

Shuttle pilot William Gregory said Endeavour “smells like different things in different places,” the kitchen like a kitchen, the bathroom like a bathroom.



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