Manitoba scientist over the moon after X-ray experiment blasts off into space

Samar Safi-Harb had the rare opportunity to watch one of her science projects blast off into space from the comfort of her Winnipeg home today.

Canada Research Chair ‘incredibly relieved’ Japanese launch went off without a hitch

JAXA's ASTRO-H is scheduled to launched Wednesday morning from the Tanegashima Space Center in Japan. (JAXA)

Samar Safi-Harb had the rare opportunity to watch one of her science projects blast off into space from the comfort of her Winnipeg home today.

A Japanese rocket shot up through Earth's atmosphere Wednesday carrying X-ray detectors, including a system called CAMS designed in Canada.
Samar Safi-Harb, a professor and Canada Research Chair in supernova astrophysics at the University of Manitoba, wants to use ASTRO-H to study supernova remnants like the one in the upper left corner. (University of Manitoba)

"It was the most amazing, exciting moment," said Safi-Harb, who is the Canada Research Chair in Supernova Remnants and Astrophysics at the University of Manitoba.

Safi-Harb and two other Canadian scientists on the team helped design the science for the mission and contributed to the development of the Canadian Astro-H Metrology System (CAMS). The set of lasers and detectors was built by Ottawa-based company Neptec through a contract with the Canadian Space Agency.

The instrument helps focus X-ray light through a telescope. Safi-Harb helped design the program for the mission as well as develop data used to build the instrument.

3rd time's the charm

The possibility of a failed launch weighed heavy on Safi-Harb's mind Wednesday morning.

Japan has attempted this very mission twice in the past, according to Safi-Harb. The first attempt ended due to a mechanical failure, while the second, though it successfully launched, had its share of problems, too.

"Within a month the main detector stopped working," she said, adding everyone involved was happy to see the third launch go off without a hitch.

X-ray observatory will study black holes and other space phenomena 1:12

"I was extremely nervous but incredibly relieved to see it launched successfully — it was a spectacular launch."

There are multiple state of the art instruments aboard, including a micro-calorimeter that will help detect the remnants of supernovae, Safi-Harb's main study interest currently.

"It's a new era for us in terms of X-ray astronomy," she said.

Investigating dramatic death of stars

X-ray detecting technology gives space researchers a chance to see high-energy phenomena in the universe that wouldn't be seen under conventional telescopes, such as the way galaxies form, how stars explode and what they leave in their wake.

Safi-Harb studies remnants of supernovae, which result from the explosions of stars. She's keen to point her X-rays off into the abyss in hopes of finding dead and dying stars.

"Imagine a massive star, about 10-times the mass of the Sun. As it evolves through its life, it's going to die eventually and this death is dramatically fascinating," she said.

Safi-Harb hopes the new detectors will ultimately help researchers better understand the building blocks of life and how the elements on the periodic table came to be.
The hard X-ray detectors are mounted on the end of an arm six metres long that will slide out of the telescope's body. The Canadian-made CAMS system uses lasers and detectors to measure the amount and direction the boom moves, and correct the image to make it sharp again. (Canadian Space Agency)

"These remnants of supernova explosions are the reason for the creation of the elements essential for life on Earth," she said.

Data collected from the project will begin to be analyzed on computers in a few months. Safi-Harb and others will then begin poring over the data hoping to make new discoveries and further humankind's knowledge of the cosmos.

"That's going to be very exciting — I can't wait!" Safi-Harb said.