POSTED 5 MAY 2005
X-rays are messengers from exotic corners of the universe, where particles collide at almost the speed of light, or where temperatures are measured in millions of degrees. But X-rays go right through the garden-variety mirror, so you need a special gizmo to collect and study them. You need the Chandra X-ray Observatory, a high-tech 45-foot pipe that collects X-rays by glancing them off a cylindrical mirror.
Chandra graphic from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
Because X-rays are produced by hot, energetic stuff, Chandra specializes in looking at things that go zoom in the night: Black holes, active galactic nuclei, collisions between galaxies, and other action-movie astronomical anomalies.
Star eat star
It's a celestial fairy tale straight from the brothers Grimm: A white dwarf sucks the life blood from a red giant. In space, Chandra has watched stellar winds blow gas from the outside of the red giant. When the gas gets caught by the white dwarf's gravity, a gas bridge forms between the stars. The blue zone is an accretion disk where high-speed particle collisions make X-rays visible to Chandra.
Photo: NASA/M. Karovska et al.
Mira A and B are 420 light years from Earth; the distance between the stars is about twice Pluto's distance from the Sun. The red giant has become huge and unstable, with a diameter about 600 times that of our Sun. Energetic nuclear reactions are making it pulsate. Once it burns up its nuclear fuel, it will collapse into a white dwarf. Mira B already is a white dwarf: It's as big as Earth, but half-a-million times more massive.
See the Chandra slide show.
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Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive