The Integral Satellite, Exploring the High Energy Gamma Ray Universe

The gamma ray universe is hidden from our view. The Earth’s atmosphere absorbs gamma rays to protect us from harmful radiation but this also means that Earth based telescopes cannot observe these rays. Because of this, this part of the universe remained a mystery for a long time.

An Artists’ Impression of the Integral Observatory
An Artists’ Impression of the Integral Observatory Image Source

However, this is no longer the case. Space based satellites such as the Integral Space Observatory have allowed astronomers to take a closer look into this high-energy universe.

In this article, we take a closer look at the Integral observatory and the gamma ray universe that it is exploring. Read on to find out everything you would want to know about this mission and this mysterious part of the universe.

What Is the Gamma Ray Universe?

The gamma ray universe is a high-energy region of the universe where violent objects exist and violent processes take place. For a very long time, this universe remained a mystery to us, as there was no way of studying it.

Gamma rays are more powerful than X-rays and are harmful to life. The Earth’s atmosphere filters gamma ray radiation to protect us. Because these rays do not get past the atmosphere, Earth based telescopes cannot observe them.

Only powerful space-based satellites can detect the most violent events and processes that happened so far away from us and made the universe what it is today. The Integral observatory is one of these satellites that is opening up this universe and allowing us to take a closer look.

By studying the gamma ray universe, we will be able to learn more about such matters as the creation of elements in supernovae, formation of stars in newborn galaxies and uncover details on some of the earliest events and processes that occurred in the early Universe.

What is the Integral Observatory?

Integral is a satellite observatory that is a joint effort by the European Space Agency (ESA) nations and scientists from Poland, Czech Republic, Russia and USA. The term INTEGRAL is an acronym for INTErnational Gamma Ray Astrophysical Laboratory. It is the most sensitive gamma-ray observatory ever launched into space.

The aim of the integral satellite is to explore the gamma ray universe and study the high-energy objects and processes that exist in this part of the universe.

The Integral Satellite and Its Components

The Integral satellite is similar in design and construction to the XMM-Newton X-ray observatory, which is also an ESA mission. Integral has two main components. The service module acts as the source of power, propulsion and navigation. The communication systems are also stored here. The payload module is where the four main science instruments in the observatory are kept.

The instruments in the integral observatory include an imager (IBIS), spectrometer (SPI), an X-ray monitor (Jem-X), and an optical camera (OMC). These are high-resolution instruments of the latest generation and they enable Integral to make gamma-ray, X-ray and optical observations at the same time.

The SPI, IBIS and Jem-X are known as coded-mask telescopes because they have perforated metal masks in front of their detectors instead of mirrors or lenses. The SPI and IBIS telescopes capture the highest resolution spectra and images of gamma radiation ever obtained enabling astrophysicists to study the high-energy objects in fine detail.

The Launch of the Integral Satellite

INTEGRAL satellite Launch
INTEGRAL satellite Launch Image Credit

The Integral satellite was launched on October 17, 2002 on a powerful Russian Proton rocket. It is on a 72-hour elliptical orbit that ensures the satellite remains at a safe distance above the Earth’s radiation belts for most of its orbit to reduce the amount of background radiation that hits the highly sensitive detectors.

Originally, the mission was planned to last only 2 years but was extended to last until December 31 2014. By the end of its term, the integral satellite will have collected a lot of gamma ray data that will keep scientists busy even after the mission is complete.

What Are Some of the Discoveries by The Integral Observatory?

The integral observatory is so sensitive that it is able to detect some of the most energetic radiation that comes from space. It is offering new insights into the most violent and exotic objects and processes in the Universe such as black holes, supernovae, active galactic nuclei and neutron stars.

By analyzing the gamma ray data collected by the integral observatory, we will be able to understand better the formation of new chemical elements and the mysterious gamma-ray bursts, which are the most energetic phenomena in the Universe.

The satellite has detected an iron quasar, found evidence of black holes and investigated gamma ray bursts. Astronomers now understand that most of the powerful events that occurred in the universe such as the formation of black holes are characterized by the emission of intense pulses of gamma radiation, which they refer to as Gamma Ray Bursters (GRBs) and which have enormous amount of energy.