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NASA’s RXTE re-enters atmosphere after 20 years

NASA’s RXTE re-enters Earth’s atmosphereAfter spending more than two decades in space, The RXTE satellite launched by NASA went back and got burnt in the Earth’s atmosphere. The space explorer was withdrawn from service in 2012 and re-entered the planet’s atmosphere on the April 30, 2018. The returning of this space travelling machine was not totally unexpected. What truly awakes the interest is its 20-year-old journey and its results.

Launching of the NASA’s RXTE satellite

NASA’s satellite named RXTE was sent to space in 1995. It started its journey from the Cape Canaveral Air Force station located in USA, Florida. Initially, the project was called XTE. In 1996 NASA changed the name of this space explorer. It was named after Bruno Rossi, a famous MIT astronomer and one of the first explorers of X-ray astronomy and plasma physics. Thus, the Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer got its full name after a year it started its travel.

What was Rossi’s mission?

RXTE was created to observe the environments of the black holes and the neutron stars in X-ray wavelength. An honoured astrophysicist of the NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center stated that RXTE specialized in exploring X-ray phenomena with the exact timing. According to him, other observatories were not able to provide such accurate measurements. The satellite not only reached the initially set goals but vastly exceed them.

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The scientific legacy of RXTE

Before the Rossi satellite stopped its observations on the January 4, 2012, it made a huge contribution to the development of scientific observations.

Decoding the Content of the Accretion Disk

NASA’s RXTE re-enters Earth’s atmosphereA neutron star is a core of gathered neutrons left after the star explosion. These objects are so dense that they are able to transform the entire mass of the sun into an object as small as a city. After an explosion, the stars can form the black holes that are even smaller and thicker.

The previously mentioned black holes and the neutron stars are able to drag the nearby starts into their orbit and create an accretion disk. Due to the friction, the orbiting gas gets heated to an incredibly high temperature which makes it omit the X-rays. As the gas comes inside, the strong X-rays reach the neutron stars and accretion disks. The signals of this process last from a few milliseconds to a couple of seconds. However, catching these short waves could give significant information about the content of the accretion disk.

In 1997 RXTE managed to provide the first information about these processes and proved the predictions of the Austrian scientists based on Einstein’s theory of relativity. Thanks to RXTE, the physicists found out that the black holes have similar X-ray activity.

The evidence of Magnetar existence

Another significant contribution of the RXTE to the space observations is proving the existence of a magnetar. Magnetar is a previously unknown form of neutron star that generates the strongest magnetic fields in the universe. If an ordinary neutron star creates the magnetic fields trillion times stronger than the ones of the Earth, the fields of the magnetar are thousand times stronger than this. Only 29 of currently listed 2600 neutron stars are categorized as magnetars.

All of the observations made by RXTE are documented in NASA’s archive and available to the public. This data is considered to be a real scientific treasure.

What happened to the Rossi satellite after more than two decades in space?

The importance of RXTE contributions was admitted by the astronomical community. The project got five awards including Bruno Rossi Prizes and Spinoza prize. After leaving a significant scientific legacy and obtaining these glorious achievements, the project came to the end.

RXTE was retired in 2012 and stopped its operations. NASA predicted it to fall to the Earth during the period between 2014 and 2023. Due to fluctuations in solar activity, it was difficult to predict the fall precisely. Later it became clear that the satellite would be back to Earth in the late April.

The satellite was launched before the NASA established the safety standards for spacecraft. There was 1 in 1000 chances that the satellite would hurt someone returning to Earth. Nowadays it is considered to be extremely risky. Luckily, RXTE re-entered Earth’s atmosphere on the 30th of April, 2018 and burnt without causing any damage after spending two decades in space.

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Note: This is a guest blog. Anthony Charlton is a professional writer. He is a big fan of science and space technologies.