Smithsonian Sparks

Meet Chandra—the most sophisticated X-ray telescope in our skies

April 9, 2024
Emily Frost
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Illustration of Chandra x-ray telescope in orbit.

The Chandra X-ray Observatory is the world’s most powerful X-ray telescope. It has eight-times greater resolution and is able to detect sources more than 20-times fainter than any previous X-ray telescope. Credit: NASA/CXC & J. Vaughan

You most likely have heard of the Hubble Space Telescope that orbits 332 miles above Earth, but what about the Chandra X-ray Observatory

NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, which was launched and deployed by Space Shuttle Columbia on July 23, 1999, is the most sophisticated X-ray telescope built to date. It orbits 200 times higher than Hubble, above the Earth’s atmosphere and more than one third of the way to the moon.

In addition to producing beautiful imagery we can all admire and use as a background on our phones, Chandra’s images allow scientists to better understand our universe. Its extraordinary technology is the only way for us to see the invisible light that comes from regions of the universe that produce X-ray emissions, such as exploding stars, galaxy clusters, and matter around black holes. 

Many things about Chandra are unique. The mirrors used in the telescope must be perfectly smooth, thin (they have the smoothness of a few atoms), and clean because X-ray waves don’t bounce off mirrors in the same way that visible light does. If an X-ray hits a mirror directly it will penetrate the mirror, and at lower angles the X-ray will simply bounce off. 

Chandra is a NASA mission that was made possible through a collaboration between government, academic, and industry partnerships. The Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO), which is part of the Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian, controls science from the Chandra X-ray Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts and flight operations from Burlington, Massachusetts.

SAO scientists, engineers, and others conceived, developed, and helped build what would become Chandra over multiple decades. Today, the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts processes the data received from Chandra, distributes the data globally for analysis, and shares the resulting images with the public and students around the world. 

This image of Cassiopeia A resembles a disk of electric light with red clouds, glowing white streaks, red and orange flames, and an area near the center of the remnant resembling a somewhat circular region of green lightning.
This composite image of supernova remnant Cassiopeia A shows the importance of bringing together data from multiple telescopes. It includes information in the form of X-rays from Chandra (blue), infrared data from the James Webb Space Telescope (red, green, blue), and optical data from the Hubble Space Telescope (red and white). The outer parts of the image also include infrared data from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope (red, green and blue). Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; Optical: NASA/ESA/STScI; IR: NASA/ESA/CSA/STScI/Milisavljevic et al., NASA/JPL/CalTech; Image Processing: NASA/CXC/SAO/J. Schmidt and K. Arcand

The mission launched in 1999, and yet the Chandra telescope continues to bring in precise data about our universe 25 years later and answer important questions that scientists didn’t even know could be asked at its launch. Today, astronomers use Chandra to learn more about everything from exploded stars to exoplanets, to the mysteries of black holes and dark matter. All things Chandra helped us learn more about. 

Chandra’s work even extends to us here on Earth. Much of the technology used to build and launch Chandra has evolved to touch our everyday lives, from the X-ray technology used in airports to medical technology ensuring that diagnostic X-rays are low-dose and still provide precise images. 

The Chandra X-ray Observatory is a great feat of human collaboration and ingenuity, and it has the ability to answer questions about things near and far for years to come.