Astronomy Today

Gamma-Ray Space Telescopes

What is the Swift mission?

The Swift mission is a mid-sized explorer mission operated by NASA in partnership with Britain and Italy. Swift was launched on November 20, 2004, from Cape Canaveral in Florida. It is a combined gamma-ray, X-ray, and ultraviolet/visible mission specially designed to study gamma-ray bursts, determining their origins and seeing if they can be used as probes of the early universe. Swift has onboard the Burst Alert Telescope (BAT), a gamma-ray telescope that detects gamma-ray bursts; the X-Ray Telescope (XRT), which narrows down the burst’s location by its X-ray emission; and the Ultraviolet-Optical Telescope (UVOT), which takes a detailed image of the location of the burst and whatever leftover afterglow light has been produced by the burst. Swift was designed to take all three kinds of data automatically—within seconds of detecting a gamma-ray burst—as well as send detailed information about the burst immediately to astronomers on the ground so the bursts can be studied instantly. When it is not studying a gamma-ray burst, the Swift telescopes can be used for other scientific investigations, such as a sensitive, high-energy X-ray survey of the universe.


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