Astrophysics Office


The X-ray Astronomy Team at MSFC is engaged in several activities in this exciting scientific field. These activities include scientific research with the Chandra X-ray Observatory; a high-energy balloon program; development of x-ray imaging detectors and x-ray focusing optics; measurements of the Sunyaev-Zel’dovitch (S-Z) effect in clusters of galaxies with a number of ground-based telescopes; development of instruments for planetary exploration; and participation in planning and technology development and testing for a number of planned and potential astrophysics missions: the Astronomical Röntgen Telescope (ART), potential substitutes for the International X-ray Observatory, and the Wide-Field X-ray Telescope Mission. The team collaborates with a large number of outside institutions such as the University of Chicago, Johns Hopkins University, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory and the Center for Astrophysics, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University, the University of California Berkeley, the Goddard Space Flight Center, Brookhaven National Laboratory, and a number of institutions abroad. The team involves and supervises graduate students both from the local university and elsewhere.

The MSFC X-ray Astronomy Team has served as the Project Science organization throughout all phases of the Chandra X-ray Observatory, the x-ray component of NASA’s Great Observatories. With over 35 years of experience in supporting Chandra and in developing x-ray optics and instruments, the team conducts technology development, builds flight hardware, and participates in concept studies for numerous planned or potential highenergy astrophysics, heliophysics, and lunar or planetary missions—ranging from balloon and rocket experiments to probe- and facility-class x-ray observatories. In support of these activities, the team conducts performance testing of x-ray optics and instruments at MSFC’s 100-m x-ray test facility, both for MSFC projects and on behalf of or in collaboration with U.S. and international partners. After completion of testing of the mirrors for the James Web Space Telescope at MSFC’s X-Ray and Cryogenics Facility (XRCF), the team will resume x-ray testing at that 528-m facility, which it helped to define and construct for the calibration of the Chandra X-ray observatory.  

In addition to its substantial effort in developing and testing x-ray hardware, the X-ray Astronomy Team conducts basic astrophysical research on a wide range of topics including cosmology and the nature of dark energy, clusters of galaxies, source populations in nearby galaxies, neutron stars and their environments (including the Crab Pulsar and Nebula), and solar-system bodies.  Much of the team’s astrophysical research uses data from the Chandra X-ray Observatory won through peer-reviewed competitive processes.

The Fermi Gamma-ray Burst Monitor (GBM) was proposed by astrophysicists at MSFC, the University of Alabama in Huntsville, and the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics.  It is an instrument on the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, launched in June 2008.  GBM keeps watch over roughly 70% of the sky at any time.  It is sensitive to soft gamma rays (energies below 1MeV), while Fermi’s Large Area Telescope detects hard gamma rays.  GBM is the most prolific detector of short gamma-ray bursts, produced when two neutron stars spiral together and merge to form a black hole.  The GBM team is working with the Advanced LIGO-VIRGO team to mount a search for the bursts of gravitational waves that such mergers should produce.  Long gamma-ray bursts result from the explosion of massive stars at the ends of their lives; these bursts have been observed from galaxies so distant that we see them when the cosmos was less than a billion years old.  By December 2014, Fermi GBM had recorded over 1500 gamma-ray bursts. 

Fermi GBM also observes flares and pulses of gamma rays from objects within our Milky Way: isolated neutron stars like the Crab pulsar and magnetars (with extremely high magnetic fields), and neutron stars and black holes in binary orbit with a companion star, which shine brightly as gas from the companion pours onto them.  GBM also detects gamma rays from flares on the surface of our Sun.  Inside thunderstorms with lightning, the electric field can become are strong enough to produce gamma rays: Fermi GBM detects these terrestrial gamma-ray flashes every day. 

The Fermi GBM team in Huntsville comprises scientists and engineers from MSFC, the University of Alabama in Huntsville, Universities Space Research Association, and Jacobs.