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Wash U Scientist Helps Launch Telescope From Antarctica To See Bright Objects In Space

A large balloon used by scientists to carry an x-ray telescope into the Earth's stratosphere in December 2018.
X-Calibur Research Team
Scientists at Antarctica's McMurdo Station used a balloon to launch an X-ray telescope 130,000 feet into the air to observe black holes and dense celestial objects called neutron stars.

Just before the new year, a Washington University professor was among a group of scientists who launched a telescope from Antarctica that could observe bright, massive objects in space, like black holes.

The international team of researchers, which included Wash U physics professor Henric Krawczynski, wanted to collect data on black holes and neutron stars, a very dense collapsed core of a giant star.

Studying such celestial phenomena helps astrophysicists test the fundamental laws of physics, Krawczynski said.

The scientists used a large balloon to carry a telescope, called X-Calibur, 130,000 feet into the air, or above 99 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere. The X-Calibur telescope can capture X-rays emitted by black holes and neutron stars.

“We want to test fundamental physics laws, and we can do that close to neutron stars and black holes,” Krawczynski said. “You learn about how matter and magnetic fields behave in extreme conditions.”

Last July, for example, astronomers were able to confirm Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity by using the Very Large Telescope in Chile to observe a cluster of stars near a black hole. Neutron stars can help scientists test the theory of quantum electrodynamics, how electric and magnetic fields behave.

The X-Calibur research team chose to launch from Antarctica’s McMurdo Station because of the unique stratospheric wind patterns that occur there, Krawczynski said. The station also has a long-duration balloon flight facility.

The research team hoped that the balloon would remain in the air for about a month, but for unknown reasons, it came down after three days.

“We did get three days of good data,” Krawcyznski said. “We are at the same time excited and disappointed, because we wanted to fly 10 times longer.”

The telescope captured X-rays from two neutron stars within the Milky Way that scientists hoped to observe. However, if the balloon had stayed up at least five days longer, it would have managed to observe a black hole that Krawczynski said was “hiding behind the sun.”

The researchers plan to conduct about three more balloon launches in the next five years. The next will take place in Sweden as a part of the Hitomi mission, a Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency project to understand black holes.

Follow Eli on Twitter: @StoriesByEli

Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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