Tuesday, September 06, 2022

Looking Back at NASA’s Copernicus Orbiting Astronomical Observatory (1972-1981)

Looking Back at NASA’s Copernicus Orbiting Astronomical Observatory (1972-1981)

This vintage segment on NASA’s Copernicus mission comes from a 1973 edition of “The Science Report,” a long-running film series produced by the U.S. Information Agency.

The heaviest and most complex space telescope of its time, Copernicus launched into orbit on Aug. 21, 1972. Initially known as Orbiting Astronomical Observatory C, it was renamed to honor the 500th anniversary of the birth of Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543), the Polish astronomer who formulated a model of the solar system with the Sun in the central position instead of Earth.

Fitted with the largest ultraviolet telescope ever orbited at the time as well as four co-aligned X-ray instruments, Copernicus was arguably NASA’s first dedicated multi-wavelength astronomy observatory.

The UV telescope produced a treasure trove of information about interstellar gas and the ionized outflows of hot stars. Copernicus measured the UV light of stars to sample the gases between them, finding evidence that most of it comes in the form of molecular hydrogen.

The X-ray experiment discovered several long-period pulsars, including X Persei. Pulsars—typically spinning neutron stars—swing a beam of radiation in our direction each time they rotate, usually at tens to thousands of times a second. Oddly, the X Persei pulsar takes a leisurely 14 minutes per spin. The mission performed long-term monitoring of other pulsars and bright sources. 

Copernicus returned UV and X-ray observations for 8.5 years before its retirement in 1981—data that appear in more than 650 scientific papers. Its instruments studied some 450 unique objects targeted by more than 160 investigators in the United States and 13 other countries.

Credit: National Archives (306-SR-138B)

Duration: 3 minutes, 11 seconds

Release Date: August 19, 2022

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