JHU physicist to take 2nd flight Astro-2 will carry 2 Md. scientists

October 25, 1993|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff Writer

Johns Hopkins University astrophysicist Samuel T. Durrance is poised for a second journey to the stars to seek new light on the mysteries of the universe.

Dr. Durrance, who expected his first ride in 1990 on the space shuttle Columbia to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, was selected to join the reflight of the Astro observatory, perhaps as early as November 1994.

NASA also chose Ronald A. Parise, a senior scientist at Computer Sciences Corp. in Silver Spring, to man the second astronomy mission.

Dr. Parise scrutinized the stars side-by-side with Dr. Durrance in December 1990 on what was the longest-delayed mission in the history of the shuttle program.

Using three telescopes, one of which was built at Hopkins, Maryland's men in space will continue to explore ultraviolet light and X-ray radiation from some of the hottest, most turbulent objects in the heavens.

The research could provide more information on the life cycle of stars and such celestial objects as quasars and supernovae.

A principal goal of the mission is to determine whether primordial gases that condensed to form stars at the the beginning of time still exist in the vast areas of space between galaxies.

"I get one of the most exciting jobs," an exhilarated Dr. Durrance, 50, said at a news conference yesterday at Hopkins' Homewood campus announcing the selections..

"We'll be building on what we were doing before. . . . We had an ambitious plan then, and we got a lot of it done."

Three years ago, he operated the Hopkins Ultraviolet Telescope and other instruments on NASA's $150 million Astro-1 observatory.

That mission appeared to be jinxed. Failed launch attempts, fuel leaks and malfunctioning equipment delayed Columbia's countdown nearly five years, the longest in NASA history.

At Hopkins, the scientists who built the telescope pinned up a cartoon showing three stooped astronauts emerging from the shuttle with canes and long white beards.

When Columbia was finally space-borne and reached its 218-mile-high orbit, the sensitive automated system that guides the telescopes failed. The crew resorted for two days to pointing the telescope manually, a time-consuming process that reduced the observations.

Despite the pointing problems and a clog in the shuttle's wastewater system that shortened the mission by a day, the astronauts returned with some startling scientific discoveries. But after the inaugural flight, Astro, which originally had been planned for as many as six missions, was grounded because of budget cuts and a shortage of shuttle launches.

The observatory was being dismantled in January 1991 when U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, D-Md., lobbied the National Aeronautics and Space Administration for a reprieve.

Astro-2 is expected to be the only reflight. Dr. Durrance and Arthur Davidsen, the lead scientist on the Hopkins telescope, predict even greater results from the next space-borne research.

More than 40 scientific articles were generated by the Astro-1 exploration, Dr. Davidsen said, and the Hopkins telescope has been substantially upgraded since then. It's expected to be three to four times more sensitive to measuring light in the far ultraviolet range.

"We're doing really basic research, really fundamental scientific things that test our understanding of the universe," Dr. Davidsen said.

For Dr. Durrance, looking down at the Earth was the most breathtaking experience of his first shuttle flight.

"You get to see the Earth from a perspective not many people get to see. It's really an emotional experience," he said.

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