ASTROSAT: Canada contributes technology to India's first space astronomy mission


Successfully launched

Astrosat launch

2015-09-28 - Congratulations to the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) on the successful launch of ASTROSAT earlier today! Canada contributed three detectors for UVIT, the twin UV and visible imaging telescopes on India's first space observatory. (Credit: ISRO)

Launch: September 28, 2015
Status: Successfully launched

Canada is collaborating with the Indian Space Research Organisation on ASTROSAT, India's first orbiting astronomy observatory, dedicated to studying celestial objects.

ASTROSAT's design is both powerful and unique: it carries five separate instruments that will be able to observe its targets in multiple wavelengths (from X-ray to visible light) at the same time—something that can only be currently done by coordinating ground and space telescopes (and lining up their busy schedules for simultaneous observations). Perhaps most importantly for Canadian astronomers like Dr. John Hutchings of the National Research Council Canada, who is the principal investigator for Canada's contribution, ASTROSAT is capable of studying astronomical objects using ultraviolet (UV) light and X-rays, which cannot be done from the ground.

Seeing a galaxy in different lights

This side-by-side comparison of a neighbouring galaxy known as Messier 81, which is similar to our own Milky Way, in both visible (left) and ultraviolet light (right). While visible-light images of galaxies reveal the distribution of stars, ultraviolet-light images highlight the most active, young stars. The ultraviolet image of Messier 81 shows that the galaxy's spiral arms are dotted with pockets of violent star-forming activity.

The visible-light image is from the National Optical Astronomy Observatory (NOAO). The ultraviolet-light image was taken by the Galaxy Evolution Explorer. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/NOAO)

For astronomers UV and X-ray wavelengths are the principal signals from exotic objects like black holes, hot white dwarfs, neutron stars and quasars.

"These are not your run-of-the-mill stars and galaxies. Some are so powerful, they affect the whole universe," Hutchings points out. "We'll be able to see how they form and study their brightness, distribution, life cycle and more."

"All of the hottest and most exotic objects in the universe radiate strongly in the ultraviolet range," says Dr. Hutchings. "By exploring distant galaxies in ultraviolet light, we can study the formation and life cycle of galaxies, as well as star formation within galaxies. That's one of the science drivers of this project," he explains.

In collaboration with the Canadian Space Agency (CSA), Hutchings co-led the development of the three Canadian detectors for UVIT, the twin UV and visible imaging telescopes on India's ASTROSAT.

"This is a technology that Canada had never developed before," says Hutchings. "The detectors capture each photon of light as it arrives and record its location and time of arrival. These are then stored, and an image is created. Also, the UVIT telescopes are far more capable than those flown previously, and can observe far larger areas of sky."

Led by the Indian Space Research Organisation, ASTROSAT is a collaboration between four Indian organisations: the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, the Indian Institute of Astrophysics, the Inter-University Centre for Astronomy and Astrophysics, and the Raman Research Institute. Two of the payloads are in collaboration with the CSA and the University of Leicester, United Kingdom.

Canada's participation in the ASTROSAT mission is funded by the CSA with in-kind support from the National Research Council Canada. After acquiring Routes AstroEngineering, COM DEV became the prime contractor for the Canadian detectors.

Canada's participation in ASTROSAT entitles Canadian scientists to observation time on the satellite, which means opportunities for unique astronomy research by Canadian astronomers.