While SpaceX was making a big breakthrough in space travel earlier this month, a rocket that launched in New Mexico was taking a look at what one of those far-off galaxies looks like.
An unmanned sounding rocket was launched from White Sands Missile Range with a telescope system known as the FORTIS onboard. Equipped with a spectrograph, the FORTIS was seeking a better view of the 56-million-light-years-away Great Barred Spiral Galaxy than is available here on Earth.
The FORTIS was built at Johns Hopkins’ Homewood campus in Baltimore, and the mission was led by JHU astrophysicist Stephan McCandliss.
The launch on Dec. 17 happened in about 15 minutes. Now, the FORTIS is set to be recovered and NASA is reporting that “good data were obtained.” The rocket was launched 175 miles up, where Earth’s ultraviolet light wouldn’t be as much of an issue. The FORTIS’ observation work is set to last for six minutes, starting with a 30-second auto-targeting of the 40 brightest spots in the galaxy.
— NASA Sun & Space (@NASASun) December 17, 2015
The mission is looking into the dust around the galaxy, hoping to find out more about how galaxies grow. In the case of the Great Barred Spiral Galaxy (aka NGC 1365), the galaxy is taking in and pushing back out material to form stars. The FORTIS equipment can create a spectrum, allowing scientists to study that material flowing in and out.
“Star-forming galaxies like [the Great Barred Spiral Galaxy] are swallowing mass from the intergalactic medium, and that material becomes stars,” McCandliss said in a NASA statement. “When these new stars ignite, they heat the surrounding gas and dust, making it emit light in these particular wavelengths.”
The FORTIS was completed in early 2013 at a cost of about $3.2 million, according to JHU Hub. The telescope has been used on two other occasions.