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November 20, 2004

NASA successfully launched the Swift gamma-ray burst observatory into orbit at 12:16pm EST. A Boeing Delta 2 rocket carried the observatory into Earth orbit. The satellite separated successfully from the rocket. The planned life of the mission is two years, although missions are usually extended beyond this nominal period.

The satellite is now undergoing its 45 day activation phase, after which it will commence a 3 month verification phase. During this period, the observing community will be notified to the detection of gamma-ray bursts through the GCN. Before the end of the activation phase, the bursts will be verified before notice is sent out. After the activation phase, the satellite will send out alerts that bursts are underway. Data about the bursts will not be released to the public until after the end of the verification phase. Once the verification phase has ended, data for a detected gamma-ray bursts will be releases through the Swift Data Center as soon as the data is processed.

Gamma-ray bursts are energetic events lasting from several milliseconds to several thousand seconds. The gamma-ray bursts with durations of more than a second are known to be from core-collapse supernovae. Their sources are among the most distant objects that we can observe, and they are among the most brilliant events that occur in the universe.

The Swift spacecraft is the third NASA spacecraft specifically designed to study gamma-ray bursts—the previous two spacecraft were the tiny HETE and HETE-2. Swift has gamma-ray and x-ray detectors that can localize gamma-ray bursts to about 5 arc seconds. It also has optical cameras that may be able to see prompt optical emission if that emission exceeds expectations. The satellite is designed to send the information about a detected gamma-ray burst to ground observatories within 70 seconds of the detection of a burst.

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