News Release
University Affairs Office
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(707) 664-2057
    November 12, 2004    
    Contact: Jean Wasp, Media Relations Coordinator, (707) 664-2057


Swift Observatory Set to Launch as SSU Group Tells the Story
and Science Behind the Biggest Explosions in the Universe

Gamma rays and black holesThey tell the stories of the biggest explosions in the Universe. At least once a day, somewhere in the sky, something goes "bang" releasing huge floods of gamma rays,and signaling the birth of a black hole.

Explaining all this to students, teachers and the public is the mission of a small staff in the NASA building at Sonoma State University who will watch with rapt attention on Nov. 17 as the Swift Observatory goes into space, following its launch from Cape Canaveral.

Swift has been designed to scan the sky for powerful explosions called gamma-ray bursts. SSU Physics and astronomy professor Lynn Cominsky and her NASA Educational and Public Outreach Group have spent years developing many curricular materials that use Swift science to get kids excited by science and math.

"Kids just love explosions, and these are the biggest ones in the Universe. We can use gamma-ray bursts to teach students about matter that turns into energy, just like in Einstein's famous equation (E=mc^2). And each explosion is the birth announcement of a black hole - another mystery that really intrigues the public" says Cominsky.

The Swift mission is unlike any other that has been previously launched by NASA. After first detecting a burst of gamma rays using its largest telescope, the spacecraft "swiftly" turns to focus two smaller telescopes that view the cooling embers of the explosion in visible, ultraviolet and x-ray light.

Each explosion releases more energy in one second than the Sun emits in its entire lifetime.

Researchers hope the Swift mission will identify the trigger that sets off the bursts. The spacecraft is named for its ability to swiftly home in on these bursts, in less than about a minute, sending their locations down to the ground in another minute or two.

Once the bursts are located, a huge team of astronomers joins the hunt, studying each burst using ground based visible light and radio telescopes. One of these telescopes is the new robotic facility that the SSU group has built in partnership with the California Academy of Sciences at their Pepperwood Preserve, northeast of Santa Rosa.

This SSU-operated telescope is part of a network that spans the world. Swift will be sending signals to the SSU telescope and SSU astronomers and physicists will be able to zero in on some gamma-ray bursts after Swift tells them where to look.

Lynn Cominsky, physics professor at SSUProfessor Cominsky's team has developed a wealth of information in order to educate schoolchildren and the public about what exactly the Swift Mission is set to accomplish.

Her staff includes: Dr. Phil Plait, Education Resource Director; Sarah Silva, Program Manager; Aurore Simonnet, Scientific Illustrator; and Tim Graves, Information Technology Consultant. Six SSU undergraduate physics majors also work in Cominsky's group.

The Swift spacecraft will be launched during a one-hour window that begins at 12:09 p.m. EST on Nov. 17 from Cape Canaveral, Florida, weather permitting. Launch attempts will occur on subsequent days at the same time if Swift does not get off the ground on its first try.

For more information on the work of SSU's NASA Educational and Public Outreach Group, visit For information on the Swift education program, visit

NOTE TO MEDIA: Digital artwork by scientific illustrator Aurore Simmonet is available for downloading from the Swift web site.

Professor Cominksy is deputy press officer for the American Astronomical Association and is available for interviews prior to the launch. Please contact Jean Wasp, Media Relations Coordinator, (707) 664-2057 for contact information.

At top, is a scientific illustration by Aurore Simonnet of merging neutron stars, one of the theoretical progenitors of gamma-ray bursts.
Above right, SSU physics professor Lynn Cominsky and the model of the Swift observatory. (Photo by Dakota Decker).


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Last Modified: 11/12/2004