By Stanton FriedmanI don’t usually pay much attention to anniversaries of various events. But I decided to make an exception when I noticed that NASA in mid-August was honoring the 10th anniversary of the first observations by the quite remarkable Chandra X Ray Space Observatory. Besides its incredible scientific benefits, it also touched on some closer-to-home values. It is named after Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, universally referred to as Chandra. I took a course in Quantum Mechanics under him at the University of Chicago in the early 1950s. He was actually based at the Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, Wisconsin, a part of the University of Chicago and drove down to teach the course. He was a great astrophysicist finally being awarded half the Nobel prize in Physics in 1983. He was born in India in 1910 the same year as my father and Dr. J. Allan Hynek. He was one of 10 children, was homeschooled until he was 12, was the nephew of C. Venkata Raman(1888-1970) another Nobel Prize winning (1930) physicist from India. Chandra won scholarships to study in England and early on derived what is today referred to as the Chandrasekhar Limit for White Dwarf stars. Unfortunately his notions were ridiculed by the much older Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington for years. ASE claimed all stars would collapse to a white Dwarf when they ran out of fuel. It took a lot of years for the astrophysics community to recognize that Chandra was right. Depending on the star’s mass, it could become a black hole or a neutron star, both very strange items indeed. But the attacks were one of the reasons he left the UK to take a position at the University of Chicago in 1937.He remained there all his life.
One of the remarkable aspects of his career was that he made very sophisticated mathematical/physics computations long before sophisticated computers were available. He would spend several years in one area of astrophysics, write a definitive book, switch to another area for several years, write another book and move on. His areas of interest included white dwarf stars, super nova, black holes, the lives and deaths of the great variety of stellar objects out there. I was surprised that his highly technical books sold a total of over 100,000 copies.. I also hadn’t known that during World War 2 he worked in areas important to the war effort for the Aberdeen Proving grounds. These included the theory of shock waves, ballistic tests and neutron diffusion. In addition he almost single handedly turned the Astrophysical Journal into a very important journal serving as editor for 19 years.
The achievements of the Chandra observatory certainly are in keeping with the breath of scientific activities of the man revealing to the whole world an entirely new understanding of what the universe is like. By using X rays instead of visible light, the universe surely looks different than when seen in visible light. The Hubbell space telescope provides that in spades. The Compton Observatory early on provided us with a view of gamma ray sources, and the Fermi Gamma Ray Space telescope reached orbit in 2008. Enrico Fermi was another University of Chicago based Nobel Prize winning physicist, New and strange and undreamed of stellar objects continue to be found.
The planning or at least thinking about an X-ray observatory began way back in the 1970s. Some of the originators such as Dr. Martin Weisskopf, the scientific director of the project are still involved . One of the many special aspects of the new system was that when it was carried aloft by the Space shuttle Columbia in 1999, it’s total weight was 55,000 pounds, the heaviest load ever lifted by a shuttle. Most of that was the Inertial Upper Stage propulsion system needed to establish a very elongated orbit. At its highest point it is about a third of the way to the moon rather than in low earth orbit. This allows for continuous observations for 55 hours of the total orbital period of 65 hrs. The Earth is out of the way most of that time. The Space Station, in contrast,only takes 90 minutes to orbit the earth. The observatory itself only weighs10,600 pounds, but it has an extraordinary angular resolution over one thousand times better than that of the first orbiting X ray telescope. I am particularly intrigued by the possibility that Chandra may have already observed some “quark” stars. People have asked me for suggestions about an interstellar propulsion system beyond nuclear fusion. I have suggested that since the amount of energy per particle goes up greatly when the size of the object (from the atom to the nucleus) goes way down, maybe the same thing happens when we go from the nucleus to the much smaller quarks of which fundamental particles like neutrons and protons are supposedly made. Talk about cutting edge technology!
Another personal connection I found was that the Observatory package was integrated by TRW Systems, now known as Northrop Grumman. I worked for TRW Systems in Redondo Beach, California, on the Pioneer 10 and 11 Spacecraft which have left the solar system after going past Jupiter and the outer planets… way back in 1970.That was fun.
Also of special interest to me was the opposition of a highly respected British Astrophysicist Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington (1882-1944) to Chandra’s theoretical derivation of the notion that if a Star’s mass was greater than 1.41 times the mass of the sun, it would not collapse to a White Dwarf. If it was much larger, it would become a black hole or neutron star upon its death. Eddington had been a very creative scientist being an early champion of Einstein’s General Relativity and was also head of the eclipse expedition in 1919 which first measured the apparent displacement of the light from a star when it passed by the sun.. a truly far out idea, but actually true. In any event Eddington, actually ridiculed Chandra’s work and this delayed work on Black Holes, neutron stars, etc for at least 20 years. Chandra’s Nobel Prize was probably delayed for at least that long as well. After all, Eddington was 28 years older than Chandra and extremely well established.
One reason this intrigues me is that Kathleen Marden , who did most of the work on our book “Captured! The Betty and Barney Hill UFO Experience”, and I are working on a new book “Science Was Wrong” (The Publisher changed the title from “It’s impossible, isn’t It?”). We have focused on many instances in which a bright, well established, senior scientist‘s opposition to new ideas delayed progress for many years. In the medical world this often resulted in many unnecessary deaths. Nobody died because of Eddington’s opposition to Chandra’s revolutionary ideas, but our understanding of that strange universe out there was long delayed by Eddington’s pronouncements. I must admit one of my mantras for many years has been that progress comes from doing things differently in an unpredictable way. X ray astronomy was born in the 1960s with the launch of Uhuru in 1970.It observed a few hundred sources. Chandra has a hundred thousand times the sensitivity and has made more than 9500 observations. One of many interesting and surprising findings was that both Mars and Venus emit x-rays.
Another more important discovery was that the Cas A Supernova remnant (in the constellation of Cassiopeia—that big W in the sky) had in the course of that supernova explosion sent material thundering into surrounding gases at 10 million miles an hour. There were violent shock waves that produced an enormous 50 million degree bubble of x-ray emitting gas. The heavy elements (having atomic numbers well above those of the lightest gasses, hydrogen and helium) produce X rays of specific energies and tell us how much of each element is present and give us a much greater indication than was known earlier of the production of those elements in the universe. The skies give the appearance of being peaceful. In truth it is clear when studying the x-rays that there is a great deal of violence going on. We should be grateful, since, without it, we wouldn’t be here. Or as Carl Sagan used to say: “we are star stuff”.
I have often complained that one of the false arguments made by UFO debunkers has been that “Absence of Evidence is evidence of Absence”. If I can’t provide a piece of an alien spacecraft or an alien body, they claim that such items don’t exist. Without Chandra, there would be much less if any data about what is happening out there and has been happening for ages even when we couldn’t observe it. I don’t have a high level security clearance and don’t have a need to know for the highly classified government data about bodies and wreckage. Canadian Wilbert Smith noted way back in 1950 that UFOs were the most classified topic in the USA. I and other serious scientists seeking the inside story don’t have a new observing technique for accessing the government’s store of UFO data. That surely doesn’t mean there is none there. I thought it was hilarious when in Mid-August Dr. Seth Shostak of the SETI institute asked on Larry King how could any one think the US government could keep big secrets for a long time in view of how badly FEMA operated?. I have noted many examples of multibillion dollar research and development programs kept secret for decades in my book “Flying Saucers and Science”. Last I heard Seth had a copy on his nightstand. Think of Lockheed’s Stealth fighter program which spent ten billion dollars and 10 years successfully developing the stealth fighter in total secrecy.
Chandra (both the man and the observatory) has been extraordinarily productive. Just 2 months after its launch Chandra imaged a supernova explosion in the Crab nebula. There were luminous rings of high energy particles surrounding its core. That had never been observed before.. As a result of its new technology, new clues have been observed about so called dark energy, dark matter and a variety of black holes, quasars and other strange bodies in the celestial Zoo. Originally it was hoped that Chandra would last 5 years. It has already been ten and many more are expected. Kudos to all those involved and to the inspiration provided by a truly great and courageous scientist and a fine teacher, Subramanyan Chandrasekhar.