Swift Satellite Turns on a Dime

NASA craft to be launched this month must act fast to catch fleeting deep space explosions

3 min read

1 November 2004--NASA plans to launch a satellite this month that can peer back in time billions of years to a point in the history of the universe about which almost nothing is known. The only evidence from that period comes from the most violent explosions ever observed, called gamma-ray bursts (GRBs). Astronomers do not know for sure what causes them. They could be caused by colliding neutron stars or black holes forming in the death throes of the very first stars in the universe.

With the new satellite, the Swift Gamma Ray Burst Explorer, a collaboration between NASA and scientific institutions in the United Kingdom and Italy, astronomers are hoping to pin down definitively the origins of GRBs. Swift was originally supposed to be launched in 2003, but a number of set backs, the latest being hurricane damage to NASA's Kennedy Space Center, in Florida, have delayed the mission. At press time, Swift's launch is scheduled for 11 November, and scientists are keeping their fingers crossed.

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Top Tech 2022: A Special Report

Preview two dozen exciting technical developments that are in the pipeline for the coming year

1 min read
Photo of the lower part of a rocket in an engineering bay.

NASA’s Space Launch System will carry Orion to the moon.

Frank Michaux/NASA

At the start of each year, IEEE Spectrum attempts to predict the future. It can be tricky, but we do our best, filling the January issue with a couple of dozen reports, short and long, about developments the editors expect to make news in the coming year.

This isn’t hard to do when the project has been in the works for a long time and is progressing on schedule—the coming first flight of NASA’s Space Launch System, for example. For other stories, we must go farther out on a limb. A case in point: the description of a hardware wallet for Bitcoin that the company formerly known as Square (which recently changed its name to Block) is developing but won’t officially comment on. One thing we can predict with confidence, though, is that Spectrum readers, familiar with the vicissitudes of technical development work, will understand if some of these projects don’t, in fact, pan out. That’s still okay.

Engineering, like life, is as much about the journey as the destination.

See all stories from our Top Tech 2022 Special Report

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