Gallo's last look at the rocket, five minutes before Astro-H separated and made its way into orbit.

New Frontiers in Space Research

International Project Highlights Astrophysics at Saint Mary's

By Karalee Clerk | spring 2016

In Mid-February, Dr. Luigi Gallo pulled an unexpected all-nighter. He’d travelled from Canada to Tanegashima Space Center in Japan, eager to witness the launch of that country’s Aerospace Exploration Agency’s ASTRO-H space observatory. But high winds and cloud-cover had delayed the February 12th takeoff. 

An astronomy and physics professor at Saint Mary’s University, Gallo was also Principal Investigator of the Canadian ASTRO-H Metrology system (CAMS), Canada’s contribution to the space observatory being readied for launch. 

The mission, if successful, would position the world’s most advanced X-ray detectors and laser measurement system in orbit around the Earth. With telescopes aimed at distant galaxies, capturing X-ray emissions in unparalleled detail, a new vision of the universe and its phenomenon, including black holes, was imminent. And black holes are Gallo’s specialty. 

Recently, observations of one black hole in particular—Markarian 335—by Gallo and his team at Saint Mary’s caused quite a stir. The team, led by Dr. Dan Wilkins, discovered that black hole was actually launching matter-emitting X-rays, outwards. The discovery radically altered previous understandings of black holes and illuminated just how much was yet to be known of their enigmatic depths.

Six days after his arrival in Japan, Gallo, along with a group of scientists and international project contributors, had finally received notice that all systems were go. Launch was set for the next day. 

Gallo’s exhilaration of being that much closer to first-of-its-kind data came with the nerve-wracking reality that the observatory’s telescopes, part of the half-billion dollar project and the culmination of hundreds of scientists’ collaborative efforts, was strapped within a rocket being prepared for blast off 550 kilometers into space. Truly, how could Gallo possibly sleep?

Gallo first got wind of the proposed space observatory in 2006. While working on his post-doc, he saw drawings of the Japanese-led project and knew a venture of such magnitude couldn’t happen in isolation. It would need collaboration—at a national level. His interest was piqued at what he suspected to be an incredible opportunity, for his own work and for Canada. 

Explains Gallo, “Scientifically, it’s impossible to know everything. The only way to progress is to work together. The project required a laser alignment system, and I knew we had the know-how to build one. I saw Canada’s involvement as a way to establish us as experts, so the next time a nation needed expertise, they would come to us.”

Gallo contacted the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) when he returned to Canada in 2007. Eventually, he persuaded the CSA to become involved. In exchange, and once the project was operational, the Japanese would ensure all collaborators had access to the data. It’s this kind of data that is integral to Gallo’s work.

“My work is driven by X-ray data collected from observing phenomenon in space, such as black holes, over and over again for long periods,” explains Gallo. “We know the data changes over time, and the better and more detailed the X-rays, the closer we can get to understanding what drives the changes and how they occur.” 

Quality data is key, but there are issues inherent in its collection. A common difficulty with orbital measurement devices is that stability and focus are often disrupted during long-term observations, billions of miles away. The data is slightly off, producing results akin to what you might expect if you took a long-exposure photo of an image held by wobbly hands. 

Canada’s alignment system would resolve this problem. As Lead Investigator of the team, Gallo helped design a calibration device, four years in the making, to measure and correct that wobble. Nine years later, once in orbit and if all went well, the ASTRO-H’s telescopes would send back drastically improved and more detailed data than ever, just what he was looking for.

One sleepless night later, the rocket was in position.

On February 17th and exactly on schedule, flames signaled ignition and years of work headed up into the sky. Three kilometers away, Gallo stood with fellow scientists and watched the rocket climb and then arc over the moon, before disappearing beyond their sightlines. And then,
they waited. 

With the rocket out of sight, every eye, including Gallo’s, was locked on the monitor showing mission control’s tracking of its progress. 

Fifteen minutes in, whoops of joy confirmed the device was successfully deployed. In another hour, it was in orbit and stabilized, earlier than anyone had expected. For two months following the launch, Gallo and fellow scientists, scattered across the globe, held their breath during the mission check out phase.

In late February, mission control began to test out the telescope and its instrumentation, and the ASTRO-H team received the first sample of x-ray data. Though excited, Gallo remained guarded on the mission itself. All was proceeding smoothly, but until the final check out phase was complete, anything could happen.

As Gallo was quick to point out, “Things don’t always work out in space as they do on the ground.”

On March 26th, Gallo’s caution was elevated to concern when mission control lost communication with ASTRO-H. As days and then weeks passed, investigative reports eventually made it clear that the failure was critical.

“Space is hard. But we have to explore,” explains Gallo. “What happened was an unfortunate string of events that began with an internal error. This set into motion a series of corrective reactions that led to a rapid spin the satellite wasn’t built to endure. As a result, a series of components broke off.”

While future data from the mission is certainly in question, Gallo takes heart that at least the team still has the test data.

Always an optimist, Gallo notes, “There is something to be learned, even from failure. In early 1960s, Riccardo Giacconi’s first two attempts to detect cosmic X-rays failed. His third attempt
in 1962 was successful, and in 2002, he won the Nobel Prize.”

Gallo and his team found something amazing with Markarian 335, and it was ground-breaking. Chances are, in spite of what happened with CAMS, Gallo and his team will do it again. 

Campus Notes: “I give because I believe in Saint Mary’s University.”

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