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Nicholas White, who head the ASCA guest-investigator program at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, says the situation is critical. "The satellite was to reenter next year," he explains, "so in this tail end of the mission we've been making long-duration observations of special targets." Other X-ray missions like the Chandra observatory and Europe's XMM-Newton have more sensitive detectors, but they are unable to study a cosmic source for days or weeks at a time. "We had hoped to get 6 to 9 more months of observations," White explains, but the intense solar activity will dramatically shorten that timeline -- assuming the spacecraft can be restored to operation.
The fourth in a series of highly successful Japanese X-ray observatories, ASCA has already exceeded its planned 5-year lifetime. Launched on February 20, 1993, the cylindrical spacecraft is 4.7 meters long and weighs 420 kilograms. Its X-ray telescopes have studied supernova remnants, neutron stars, active galactic nuclei, and other high-energy phenomena. Japanese astrophysicists had hoped to loft its successor, Astro E, earlier this year. But on February 10th the solid-fuel Mu V launch rocket veered off course, causing the satellite to plunge into the atmosphere before it ever reached orbit.
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