BAIKONUR, Kazakhstan, Oct. 17 (UPI) -- A Russian Proton rocket blasted off early Thursday from the Baikonur Cosmodrome to deliver a sophisticated gamma ray telescope into orbit for the European Space Agency.
A long-awaited follow-on to NASA's Compton Gamma Ray Observatory, which operated from 1991 to 2000, the International Gamma-Ray Astrophysics Laboratory, nicknamed INTEGRAL, includes a key instrument omitted from the U.S. telescope due to budget cuts.
INTEGRAL includes a spectrometer that is sensitive to the highest-energy radiation discernible -- energy that splits apart atoms. Scientists are optimistic the instrument will be able to discern radioactive nuclei of freshly synthesized cobalt isotopes and other elements formed in the throes of stellar explosions, called supernovae.
During an explosion, matter is hurled across space, enriching the interstellar swamp of raw materials for future star and planetary formation, said Jim Matteson, with the University of California, San Diego's Center for Astrophysics and Space Sciences, and a pioneering member of INTEGRAL's science and engineering team.
"In the universe we're in today, all the elements are present, but at the time of the Big Bang there was only hydrogen and helium," said Matteson. "Much of the synthesis (of the elements) is thought to occur in supernova."
INTEGRAL carries a second gamma-ray instrument to map the sky in large enough sections and with sharp enough resolution to simultaneously study objects, identify their locations, measure their intensities and variations over time and analyze how the radiation has been affected by particular elements, physical conditions and other phenomena.
Scientists hope to use this instrument to discovery many new objects, such as black holes, quasars and Seifert galaxies, which are far brighter than regular galaxies.
Two other devices on INTREGRAL complement the gamma-ray sensors. An X-ray detector and a visible-light digital camera will be used to obtain more data about select targets that emit electromagnetic radiation in wavelengths longer than gamma rays.
"Interconnection among the instruments was a key part of the INTEGRAL concept," said Matteson, who has been working on the project for more than 13 years.
The Proton rocket that carried the four-and-a-half-ton observatory into space is expected to leave it in a highly elliptical orbit that reaches one-third of the way to the moon, lessening the amount of interfering energy from Earth's radiation belts.
After several months on testing and checkout, INTEGRAL will begin a planned two-year mission. Scientists, however, are hoping to keep the telescope operating for five years if additional funding is approved.
Integral was developed and built by Alenia Aerospazio of Italy for the European Space Agency. Partners in the project include ESA member countries, Russia, Poland, the Czech Republic and the United States.
(Reported by Irene Brown, UPI Science News, at Cape Canaveral, Fla.)