CHESS rocket to study birthplace of stars

May 28, 2014 by Karen C. Fox
The Colorado High-resolution Echelle Stellar Spectrograph, or CHESS, sounding rocket gets ready for a six-minute flight to observe far beyond our solar system -- to peer at a place where new stars are born. Credit: NASA/WSMR

Update - May 27, 2014: NASA successfully launched the Colorado High-resolution Echelle Stellar Spectrograph, or CHESS, payload aboard a Black Brant IX suborbital sounding rocket at 3:35 a.m. EDT on May 24, 2014, from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Principal investigator Kevin France at the University of Colorado at Boulder reports that good data was received and the mission was a success. Recovery of the payload is in progress, as planned.

In deep space, floating between the stars, lies an abundance of atoms—carbon, oxygen, hydrogen—that over millions of years will grow into new stars and new planets. Early in the morning on May 24, 2014, at 2 a.m. EDT, a NASA Black Brant IX sounding rocket will carry a for a 15–minute flight to observe this star nursery more comprehensively and in better detail than has been done by a single instrument ever before.

"These atoms are the raw materials, the very building blocks for the next generation of stars and planets," said Kevin France at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "We're making detailed measurements of how many atoms have transitioned into molecules, which is the very first step toward star formation."

The sounding rocket payload, Colorado High-resolution Echelle Stellar Spectrograph or CHESS, will launch from White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. CHESS is equipped with what's known as a spectrograph, which can parse out just how much of any given wavelength of light is present. CHESS will soar above Earth's atmosphere to look at the ultraviolet light from a bright star – light that is blocked by the atmosphere and can't be seen from the ground. As this light courses toward Earth, it bumps into the interstellar atoms and molecules along the way, each of which can block certain wavelengths of light. Scientists know which wavelength is blocked by what, so by measuring what light is missing, they can map out the atoms and molecules that are present in space.

The CHESS spectrograph provides such detailed and comprehensive observations that it can measure not only what are present, but how fast they are moving and how turbulent the gas is. Together, this information helps characterize how mature a given cloud of dust is.

"Carbon, for example, will appear differently over time," said France. "Early on the cloud will have carbon with a missing electron, called ionized carbon. As the gas gets denser, the carbon atoms gain back their electrons, so you have neutral carbon. As you get even denser clouds, the carbon binds to oxygen creating carbon monoxide molecules – and at that point you can probe the cloud conditions that precede the collapse into a star."

Using something like CHESS to see whether you have ionized or neutral carbon, or even monoxide molecules tells you more about how old the cloud is and can help scientists learn how stars form from these clouds. It's still not known exactly how long it takes before a cloud collapses to begin making a star, for example. It might be anywhere between 1 to 100 million years.

By flying such newly-developed instruments on a relatively inexpensive sounding rocket, scientists do more than just gather solid science data. They also have the chance to test and improve their instruments, perhaps to someday fly long-term on a satellite in space.

NASA successfully launched the Colorado High-resolution Echelle Stellar Spectrograph, or CHESS, payload aboard a Black Brant IX suborbital at 3:35 a.m. EDT on May 24, 2014, from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. Principal investigator Kevin France at the University of Colorado at Boulder reports that good data was received and the mission was a success. Recovery of the payload is in progress, as planned.

Explore further: NASA sounding rocket to study interplanetary medium

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

NASA sounding rocket to study interplanetary medium

May 01, 2014

NASA will conduct a sounding rocket mission in May 2014, carrying a payload designed to measure the nature of the interplanetary medium, characterizing the particles that fill our solar system.

Sounding rocket to calibrate NASA's SDO instrument

Oct 21, 2013

NASA will conduct a sounding rocket launch at 2 p.m. EDT, Monday, Oct. 21, 2013, from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico carrying an experiment to support the calibration of the EUV Variability Experiment, ...

Experiment examining a SLICE of the interstellar medium

Dec 14, 2012

(Phys.org)—When you look up at the stars at night, the space between stars looks empty. But, yes there is something there. It's called the interstellar medium. An experiment from the University of Colorado ...

DXL: NASA launching X-ray emission mission

Dec 10, 2012

NASA will launch an astrophysics mission to study the Diffuse X-ray emission from the Local galaxy (DXL) December 9 from the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. The goal of this flight is to identify ...

Recommended for you

Evidence of a local hot bubble carved by a supernova

18 hours ago

I spent this past weekend backpacking in Rocky Mountain National Park, where although the snow-swept peaks and the dangerously close wildlife were staggering, the night sky stood in triumph. Without a fire, ...

Astronomers measure weight of galaxies, expansion of universe

Jul 30, 2014

Astronomers at the University of British Columbia have collaborated with international researchers to calculate the precise mass of the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies, dispelling the notion that the two galaxies have similar ...

Mysterious molecules in space

Jul 29, 2014

Over the vast, empty reaches of interstellar space, countless small molecules tumble quietly though the cold vacuum. Forged in the fusion furnaces of ancient stars and ejected into space when those stars ...

Comet Jacques makes a 'questionable' appearance

Jul 28, 2014

What an awesome photo! Italian amateur astronomer Rolando Ligustri nailed it earlier today using a remote telescope in New Mexico and wide-field 4-inch (106 mm) refractor. Currently the brightest comet in ...

User comments : 0