For 16 years NASA’s Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer, RXTE to his friends, provided unprecedented views into the hearts of black holes, white dwarfs and neutron stars. Having far surpassed its initial goals, RXTE has sent its last transmission back to Earth and has been switched off for good.
The satellite was originally launched to observe the incredible swirling accretion discs that circle black holes as they gobble-up fallen stars and other celestial bodies, using X-rays.
“RXTE opened a new window into the workings of neutron stars and black holes. Using its data, astronomers established the existence of highly magnetised neutron stars (known as magnetars) and discovered the first accreting millisecond pulsars.”
“The observatory also provided the first observational evidence of “frame-dragging” in the vicinity of a black hole, an effect predicted by Einstein’s general theory of relativity.”
RXTE was equipped with three instruments designed to measure X-ray emissions on timescales from microseconds to months. It could measure energy levels between 2,000 and 250,000 electron volts (an X-ray at the dentist is roughly 60,000eV), and was a collaboration between NASA, the University of California and MIT.
“The spacecraft and its instruments had been showing their age, and in the end RXTE had accomplished everything we put it up there to do, and much more,” said Tod Strohmayer, of the RXTE project at Goddard.
It’s a sad day for the project, but having produced data for 2,200 papers and 92 PhDs, and leaving a wealth of data yet to sift through, NASA’s calling it mission accomplished.
The three tonne satellite is due to head back to Earth between 2014 and 2023, depending on solar activity. I just hope it doesn’t land near me — there’s no way my insurance company will believe me when I ring up to say my house is toast because of a fallen RXTE. [NASA]