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Supernova Shines In Scope

NASA unveiled the first test images from the $1.6 billion Chandra X-ray Observatory, providing a crystal-clear look at the churning cloud of debris blown off by an exploding star and what appears to be the collapsed, never-before-seen remnant of its collapsed core, reports CBS News Space Consultant Bill Harwood.

A second, less visually dramatic, test image shows a brilliant point of X-ray light with a slightly dimmer streak to one side.

The source is a black hole-driven quasar shining across six billion light years of space and time that was chosen simply to serve as a compact target for calibration purposes.

The unexpected streak apparently is the result of an unimaginably powerful jet from the quasar capable of generating X-rays more than 200,000 light years - more than twice the width of the Milky Way galaxy - from the power source.

Â"The thing thatÂ's mysterious and interesting is that these very high energy photons are being emitted far out from the source,Â" said Harvard astronomer Robert Kirshner.

Chandra was launched from the shuttle Columbia July 23. The telescope will spend most of its time above EarthÂ's energetic radiation belts, which otherwise might degrade the performance of its sensitive instruments.

Â"This is a great day for the Chandra team and itÂ's a great day for all astronomy,Â" Kirshner said as the image was revealed to the public. Â"X-ray astronomy is a special and rather exciting field because it provides a unique window on the hottest and most violent parts of the universe."

The test image from the Chandra telescope clearly shows a brilliant point of light in the center of the supernova cloud, presumably the long sought-after neutron star.

Â"Up until now, nobody has been able to find a point source, nobodyÂ's been able to find a neutron star,Â" said Harvey Tananbaum, director of the Chandra X-ray Center in Cambridge. Â"That was one of the big mysteries."

Â"Every supernova explosion almost needs to produce a neutron star just to balance our books,Â" he said. Â"And if one of the nearest and most recent didnÂ't produce it, it begins to create a dilemma. No,w we have at least a candidate. Now, we have to find out if that candidate is actually a neutron star thatÂ's part of Cass A.Â"

Assuming the object is, in fact, the Cass A neutron star, it is not yet known why it shines in X-rays.

The presumed neutron star is imbedded in a vast light-years-wide cloud of expanding debris moving at up to 10 million mph. As that material collides with particles in interstellar space, X-rays are generated.

While the pictures unveiled are important in their own right, they are little more than snapshots, first glimpses of what Chandra is capable of producing.

Most important, the images show the telescope is operating exactly as astronomers intended.

Over the next month, engineers will continue to fine-tune and calibrate Chandra's instruments before starting aroud-the-clock science observations.

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