Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory

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Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory
Swift Observatory spacecraft model.png
Mission typeGamma-ray astronomy
OperatorNASA / PSU
COSPAR ID2004-047A
SATCAT no.28485
Mission durationPlanned: 2 years[1][2]
Elapsed: 17 years, 10 days
Spacecraft properties
ManufacturerSpectrum Astro
Launch mass1,467 kg (3,234 lb)[3]
Dry mass613 kg (1,351 lb)
Payload mass843 kg (1,858 lb)
Dimensions 5.6 × 5.4 m (18.5 × 17.75 ft)[4]
Power2,132 W[3]
Start of mission
Launch dateNovember 20, 2004, 17:16 (2004-11-20UTC17:16) UTC
RocketDelta II 7320-10C
Launch siteCape Canaveral SLC-17
Orbital parameters
Reference systemGeocentric
RegimeLow Earth
Semi-major axis6,932.7 km (4,307.8 mi)
Perigee altitude546.6 km (339.6 mi)
Apogee altitude562.5 km (349.5 mi)
Period95.74 minutes
Argument of perigee4.37°
Mean anomaly355.68°
Mean motion15.04 rev/day
EpochJanuary 12, 2018, 13:00:46 UTC[6]
Revolution no.71,974
Main telescope
TypeBATCoded mask
XRTWolter type I
DiameterXRT: 30 cm (12 in)
UVOT: 30 cm (12 in)
Focal lengthXRT: 3.5 m (11 ft)
Collecting areaBAT: 5,200 cm2 (810 sq in)
XRT: 110 cm2 (17 sq in)
Wavelengthsγ-ray / X-ray / UV / Visible
Swift Gamma-Ray Burst Mission patch (transparent).png
Swift mission patch

The Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory, previously called the Swift Gamma-Ray Burst Mission, is a NASA space observatory designed to detect gamma-ray bursts (GRBs). It was launched on November 20, 2004, aboard a Delta II rocket. Headed by Principal Investigator Neil Gehrels (until his death in 2017), NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, the mission was developed in a joint partnership between Goddard and an international consortium from the United States, United Kingdom, and Italy. The mission is operated by Pennsylvania State University as part of NASA's Medium Explorers program (MIDEX).


Swift is a multi-wavelength space observatory dedicated to the study of gamma-ray bursts. Its three instruments work together to observe GRBs and their afterglows in the gamma-ray, X-ray, ultraviolet, and optical wavebands.

Based on continuous scans of the area of the sky with one of the instrument's monitors, Swift uses momentum wheels to autonomously slew into the direction of possible GRBs. The name "Swift" is not a mission-related acronym, but rather a reference to the instrument's rapid slew capability, and the nimble bird of the same name.[7] All of Swift's discoveries are transmitted to the ground and those data are available to other observatories which join Swift in observing the GRBs.

In the time between GRB events, Swift is available for other scientific investigations, and scientists from universities and other organizations can submit proposals for observations.

The Swift Mission Operation Center (MOC), where commanding of the satellite is performed, is located in State College, Pennsylvania and operated by the Pennsylvania State University and industry subcontractors. The Swift main ground station is located at the Broglio Space Centre near Malindi on the coast of Eastern Kenya, and is operated by the Italian Space Agency. The Swift Science Data Center (SDC) and archive are located at the Goddard Space Flight Center outside Washington D.C. The UK Swift Science Data Centre is located at the University of Leicester.

The Swift spacecraft bus was built by Spectrum Astro, which was later acquired by General Dynamics Advanced Information Systems,[8] which was in turn acquired by Orbital Sciences Corporation (now Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems).


Burst Alert Telescope (BAT)[edit]

The BAT detects GRB events and computes its coordinates in the sky. It covers a large fraction of the sky (over one steradian fully coded, three steradians partially coded; by comparison, the full sky solid angle is 4π or about 12.6 steradians). It locates the position of each event with an accuracy of 1 to 4 arc-minutes within 15 seconds. This crude position is immediately relayed to the ground, and some wide-field, rapid-slew ground-based telescopes can catch the GRB with this information. The BAT uses a coded-aperture mask of 52,000 randomly placed 5 mm lead tiles, 1 meter above a detector plane of 32,768 four mm CdZnTe hard X-ray detector tiles; it is purpose-built for Swift. Energy range: 15–150 keV.[9]

X-ray Telescope (XRT)[edit]

The XRT[10] can take images and perform spectral analysis of the GRB afterglow. This provides more precise location of the GRB, with a typical error circle of approximately 2 arcseconds radius. The XRT is also used to perform long-term monitoring of GRB afterglow light-curves for days to weeks after the event, depending on the brightness of the afterglow. The XRT uses a Wolter Type I X-ray telescope with 12 nested mirrors, focused onto a single MOS charge-coupled device (CCD) similar to those used by the XMM-Newton EPIC MOS cameras. On-board software allows fully automated observations, with the instrument selecting an appropriate observing mode for each object, based on its measured count rate. The telescope has an energy range of 0.2–10 keV.[11]

Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope (UVOT)[edit]

UVOT's "first light" image

After Swift has slewed towards a GRB, the UVOT is used to detect an optical afterglow. The UVOT provides a sub-arcsecond position and provides optical and ultra-violet photometry through lenticular filters and low resolution spectra (170–650 nm) through the use of its optical and UV grisms. The UVOT is also used to provide long-term follow-ups of GRB afterglow lightcurves. The UVOT is based on the XMM-Newton mission's Optical Monitor (OM) instrument, with improved optics and upgraded onboard processing computers.[12]

On November 9, 2011, UVOT photographed the asteroid 2005 YU55 as the asteroid made a close flyby of the Earth.[13]

On June 3, 2013, UVOT unveiled a massive ultraviolet survey of the nearby Magellanic Clouds.[14]

In Aug 2017, UVOT imaged UV emissions from gravitational wave event GW170817 detected by LIGO & Virgo detectors.[15][16]

Mission goals[edit]

The Swift mission has four key scientific objectives:

  • To determine the origin of GRBs. There seem to be at least two types of GRBs, only one of which can be explained with a hypernova, creating a gamma-ray beam. More data is needed to explore other explanations.
  • To use GRBs to expand understanding of the young universe. GRBs seem to take place at "cosmological distances" of many millions or billions of light-years, which means they can be used to probe the distant, and therefore young, cosmos.
  • To conduct an all-sky survey which will be more sensitive than any previous one, and will add significantly to scientific knowledge of astronomical X-ray sources. Thus, it could also yield unexpected results.
  • To serve as a general purpose gamma-ray/X-ray/optical observatory platform, performing rapid "target of opportunity" observations of many transient astrophysical phenomena, such as supernovae.

Mission history[edit]

Animation of Swift Observatory's orbit around Earth. Earth is not shown.

Swift was launched on November 20, 2004, at 17:16 UTC aboard a Delta II 7320-10C from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station and reached a near-perfect orbit of 585 × 604 km (364 × 375 mi) altitude, with an inclination of 20.6°.[17]

On December 4, an anomaly occurred during instrument activation when the Thermo-Electric Cooler (TEC) Power Supply for the X-Ray Telescope did not turn on as expected. The XRT Team at Leicester and Penn State University were able to determine on December 8 that the XRT would be usable even without the TEC being operational. Additional testing on December 16 did not yield any further information as to the cause of the anomaly.

On December 17 at 07:28:30 UTC, the Swift Burst Alert Telescope (BAT) triggered and located on board an apparent gamma-ray burst during launch and early operations.[18] The spacecraft did not autonomously slew to the burst since normal operation had not yet begun, and autonomous slewing was not yet enabled. Swift had its first GRB trigger during a period when the autonomous slewing was enabled on January 17, 2005, at about 12:55 UTC. It pointed the XRT telescope to the on-board computed coordinates and observed a bright X-ray source in the field of view.[19]

On February 1, 2005, the mission team released the first light picture of the UVOT instrument and declared Swift operational.

By May 2010, Swift had detected more than 500 GRBs.[20]

By October 2013, Swift had detected more than 800 GRBs.[21]

On October 27, 2015, Swift detected its 1,000th GRB, an event named GRB 151027B and located in the constellation Eridanus.[22]

On January 10, 2018, NASA announced that the Swift spacecraft had been renamed the Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory in honor of mission PI Neil Gehrels, who died in early 2017.[23][24]

Notable detections[edit]

GRB 080319B, one of the brightest astronomical events ever detected, seen in X-ray and visible/UV light
GRB 151027B, the 1000th GRB detected by Swift
All-sky map of GRBs detected by Swift between 2004 and 2015
Illustration of a brown dwarf combined with a graph of light curves from OGLE-2015-BLG-1319: Ground-based data (grey), Swift (blue), and Spitzer (red)
  • May 9, 2005: Swift detected GRB 050509B, a burst of gamma rays that lasted one-twentieth of a second. The detection marked the first time that the accurate location of a short-duration gamma-ray burst had been identified and the first detection of X-ray afterglow in an individual short burst.[25][26]
  • September 4, 2005: Swift detected GRB 050904 with a redshift value of 6.29 and a duration of 200 seconds (most of the detected bursts last about 10 seconds). It was also found to be the most distant yet detected, at approximately 12.6 billion light-years.
  • February 18, 2006: Swift detected GRB 060218, an unusually long (about 2000 seconds) and nearby (about 440 million light-years) burst, which was unusually dim despite its close distance, and may be an indication of an imminent supernova.
  • June 14, 2006: Swift detected GRB 060614, a burst of gamma rays that lasted 102 seconds in a distant galaxy (about 1.6 billion light-years). No supernova was seen following this event (and GRB 060505 to deep limits) leading some to speculate that it represented a new class of progenitors. Others suggested that these events could have been massive star deaths, but ones which produced too little radioactive 56Ni to power a supernova explosion.
  • January 9, 2008: Swift was observing a supernova in NGC 2770 when it witnessed an X-ray burst coming from the same galaxy. The source of this burst was found to be the beginning of another supernova, later called SN 2008D. Never before had a supernova been seen at such an early stage in its evolution. Following this stroke of luck (position, time, most appropriate instruments), astronomers were able to study in detail this Type Ibc supernova with the Hubble Space Telescope, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, the Very Large Array in New Mexico, the Gemini North telescope in Hawaii, Gemini South in Chile, the Keck I telescope in Hawaii, the 1.3m PAIRITEL telescope at Mt Hopkins, the 200-inch and 60-inch telescopes at the Palomar Observatory in California, and the 3.5-meter telescope at the Apache Point Observatory in New Mexico. The significance of this supernova was likened by discovery team leader Alicia Soderberg to that of the Rosetta Stone for egyptology.[27]
  • February 8 and 13, 2008: Swift provided critical information about the nature of Hanny's Voorwerp, mainly the absence of an ionizing source within the Voorwerp or in the neighboring IC 2497.
  • March 19, 2008: Swift detected GRB 080319B, a burst of gamma rays amongst the brightest celestial objects ever witnessed. At 7.5 billion light-years, Swift established a new record for the farthest object (briefly) visible to the naked eye. It was also said to be 2.5 million times intrinsically brighter than the previous brightest accepted supernova (SN 2005ap). Swift observed a record four GRBs that day, which also coincided with the death of noted science-fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke.[28]
  • September 13, 2008: Swift detected GRB 080913, at the time the most distant GRB observed (12.8 billion light-years) until the observation of GRB 090423 a few months later.[29][30]
  • April 23, 2009: Swift detected GRB 090423, the most distant cosmic explosion ever seen at that time, at 13.035 billion light-years. In other words, the universe was only 630 million years old when this burst occurred.[31]
  • April 29, 2009: Swift detected GRB 090429B, which was found by later analysis published in 2011 to be 13.14 billion light-years distant (approximately equivalent to 520 million years after the Big Bang), even farther than GRB 090423.[32]
  • March 16, 2010: Swift tied its record by again detecting and localizing four bursts in a single day.
  • April 13, 2010: Swift detected its 500th GRB.[33]
  • March 28, 2011: Swift detected Swift J1644+57 which subsequent analysis showed to possibly be the signature of a star being disrupted by a black hole or the ignition of an active galactic nucleus.[34]"This is truly different from any explosive event we have seen before," said Joshua Bloom of the University of California at Berkeley, the lead author of the study published in the June issue of Science.[35]
  • September 16 and 17, 2012: BAT triggered two times on a previously unknown hard X-ray source, named Sw J1745-26, a few degrees from the Galactic Center. The outburst, produced by a rare X-ray nova, announced the presence of a previously unknown stellar-mass black hole undergoing a dramatic transition from the low/hard to the high/soft state.[36][37][38]
  • 2013: Discovery of ultra-long class of gamma-ray bursts
  • April 24, 2013: Swift detected an X-ray flare from the Galactic Center. This proved not to be related to Sgr A* but to a previously unsuspected magnetar. Later observations by the NuSTAR and the Chandra X-ray Observatory confirmed the detection.[39]
  • April 27, 2013: Swift detected the "shockingly bright" Gamma-ray burst GRB 130427A. Observed simultaneously by the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope, it is one of the five closest GRBs detected and one of the brightest seen by either space telescope.[40]
  • June 3, 2013: Evidence for kilonova emission in short GRB
  • April 23, 2014: Swift detected the strongest, hottest, and longest-lasting sequence of stellar flares ever seen from a nearby red dwarf star. The initial blast from this record-setting series of explosions was as much as 10,000 times more powerful than the largest solar flare ever recorded.[41]
  • May 3, 2014: Detection of a UV Pulse from an iPTF discovered young Type Ia SN
  • June–July 2015: The brown dwarf OGLE-2015-BLG-1319 was discovered using the gravitational microlensing detection method in a joint effort between Swift, Spitzer, and the ground-based Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment, the first time two space telescopes have observed the same microlensing event. This method was possible because of the large separation between the two spacecraft: Swift is in low-Earth orbit while Spitzer is more than one AU distant in an Earth-trailing heliocentric orbit. This separation provided significantly different perspectives of the brown dwarf, allowing for constraints to be placed on some of the object's physical characteristics.[42]
  • October 27, 2015: Swift detected its 1000th gamma-ray burst, GRB 151027B.[22]
  • August 18, 2017: Swift discovers UV emission from the kilonova AT 2017gfo, the electromagnetic counterpart to GW170817.[16]
  • September 23, 2017: Swift is the first to identify TXS 0506+056 as the possible source of the IceCube-170922A extremely high energy (EHE) neutrinos.[43]
  • January 14, 2019: Swift discovers the most powerful observed gamma-ray burst, GRB 190114C, reaching teraelectronvolt energies.[44]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "NASA Swift Mission Extended for 4 More Years". Omitron. Archived from the original on April 8, 2008. Retrieved April 7, 2008.
  2. ^ "Omitron flight operations for NASA Swift mission extended for two additional years". Omitron. February 10, 2009. Archived from the original on February 15, 2015. Retrieved December 13, 2014.
  3. ^ a b "Swift: Space-based Gamma-Ray Observatory" (PDF). Orbital ATK. 2014. Archived from the original (PDF) on March 16, 2015. Retrieved July 7, 2015.
  4. ^ "Swift Facts and FAQ". Sonoma State University. March 28, 2008. Retrieved July 7, 2015.
  5. ^ "Swift Explorer: News Media Kit" (PDF). NASA. November 1, 2004. Retrieved December 18, 2016.
  6. ^ "Swift - Orbit". Heavens-Above. January 12, 2018. Retrieved January 13, 2018.
  7. ^ Myers, J. D. (September 26, 2007). "Swift Guest Investigator Program Frequently Asked Questions". NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center. Retrieved May 2, 2009.
  8. ^ "Swift". Spectrum Astro.[permanent dead link]
  9. ^ Myers, J. D. (February 28, 2006). "Swift's Burst Alert Telescope (BAT)". NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center. Retrieved May 2, 2009.
  10. ^ Burrows, David N.; et al. (October 2005). "The Swift X-Ray Telescope". Space Science Reviews. 120 (3–4): 165–195. arXiv:astro-ph/0508071. Bibcode:2005SSRv..120..165B. doi:10.1007/s11214-005-5097-2. S2CID 54003617.
  11. ^ Myers, J. D. (August 15, 2008). "Swift's X-Ray Telescope (XRT)". NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center. Retrieved May 2, 2009.
  12. ^ Myers, J. D. (December 14, 2006). "Swift's Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope (UVOT)". NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center. Retrieved May 2, 2009.
  13. ^ Reddy, Francis (November 11, 2011). "Swift Captures Flyby of Asteroid 2005 YU55". NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center. Retrieved November 22, 2011.
  14. ^ Reddy, Francis (June 3, 2013). "NASA's Swift Produces Best Ultraviolet Maps of the Nearest Galaxies". NASA.
  15. ^ NASA Missions Catch First Light from a Gravitational-Wave Event 2017
  16. ^ a b Evans, P. A.; et al. (October 16, 2017). "Swift and NuSTAR observations of GW170817: detection of a blue kilonova". Science. 358 (6370): 1565–1570. arXiv:1710.05437. Bibcode:2017Sci...358.1565E. doi:10.1126/science.aap9580. PMID 29038371. S2CID 4028270.
  17. ^ "Swift - Trajectory Details". National Space Science Data Center. NASA. Retrieved January 14, 2018.
  18. ^ Fenimore, Ed (December 17, 2004). "GRB041217: The First GRB Located On-Board Swift". NASA. Retrieved May 2, 2009.
  19. ^ Burrows, David (January 17, 2005). "GRB050117: Swift XRT Position". NASA. Retrieved July 7, 2015.
  20. ^ Reddy, Francis (April 19, 2010). "NASA's Swift Catches 500th Gamma-ray Burst". NASA. Retrieved October 10, 2016.
  21. ^ "Swift GRB Table Stats". NASA. Archived from the original on November 10, 2013. Retrieved November 10, 2013.
  22. ^ a b Reddy, Francis (November 6, 2015). "NASA's Swift Spots its Thousandth Gamma-ray Burst". NASA. Retrieved October 10, 2016.
  23. ^ Foust, Jeff (January 11, 2018). "NASA renames Swift mission after astronomer Neil Gehrels". SpaceNews. Retrieved January 13, 2018.
  24. ^ Cofield, Calla (January 10, 2018). "NASA Renames Swift Observatory in Honor of Late Principal Investigator". Retrieved July 10, 2018.
  25. ^ Whitehouse, David (May 11, 2005). "Blast hints at black hole birth". BBC News. Retrieved July 12, 2011.
  26. ^ Bloom, Joshua (May 31, 2005). "Astronomers hot on the trail of nature's exotic flashers" (Press release). University of California, Berkeley. Retrieved July 7, 2015.
  27. ^ Naeye, Robert (May 21, 2008). "NASA's Swift Satellite Catches a Star Going 'Kaboom!'" (Press release). NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center. Retrieved May 2, 2009.
  28. ^ Harrington, J. D. (March 20, 2008). "NASA Satellite Detects Naked-Eye Explosion Halfway Across Universe" (Press release). NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center. Retrieved May 2, 2009.
  29. ^ Atkinson, Nancy (October 28, 2009). "More Observations of GRB 090423, the Most Distant Known Object in the Universe". Universe Today. Retrieved February 23, 2010.
  30. ^ Garner, Robert (September 19, 2008). "NASA's Swift Catches Farthest Ever Gamma-Ray Burst". NASA. Retrieved November 3, 2008.
  31. ^ Reddy, Francis (April 28, 2009). "New Gamma-Ray Burst Smashes Cosmic Distance Record". NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center. Retrieved May 2, 2009.
  32. ^ Amos, Jonathan (May 25, 2011). "Cosmic distance record 'broken'". BBC News. Retrieved May 25, 2011.
  33. ^ Reddy, Francis (April 19, 2010). "NASA's Swift Catches 500th Gamma-ray Burst". NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center. Retrieved June 17, 2011.
  34. ^ Chang, Alicia (June 16, 2011). "Black Hole Devours Star: Source Of Mysterious Flash In Distant Galaxy Determined". The Huffington Post. Retrieved June 17, 2011.
  35. ^ "Black hole eats star, triggers gamma-ray flash". Cosmos. Agence France-Presse. June 17, 2011. Archived from the original on June 18, 2011. Retrieved June 17, 2011.
  36. ^ Reddy, Francis (October 5, 2012). "NASA's Swift Satellite Discovers a New Black Hole in our Galaxy". NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center. Retrieved November 10, 2013.
  37. ^ Sbarufatti, Boris (September 17, 2012). "Swift J174510.8-262411 (to be known as Sw J1745-26): 0.5 Crab and rising". The Astronomer's Telegram. Retrieved November 10, 2013.
  38. ^ Belloni, Tomaso (October 3, 2012). "Swift J174510.8-262411 in the hard intermediate state". The Astronomer's Telegram. Retrieved November 10, 2013.
  39. ^ Young, Monica (May 10, 2013). "A Cosmic Sleight of Hand". Sky & Telescope. Archived from the original on June 30, 2013. Retrieved November 10, 2013.
  40. ^ Reddy, Francis (May 3, 2013). "NASA's Fermi, Swift See 'Shockingly Bright' Burst". NASA. Retrieved November 10, 2013.
  41. ^ Reddy, Francis (September 30, 2014). "NASA's Swift Mission Observes Mega Flares from a Mini Star". NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center. Retrieved March 19, 2015.
  42. ^ Landau, Elizabeth (November 10, 2016). "NASA Space Telescopes Pinpoint Elusive Brown Dwarf". NASA/Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Retrieved December 18, 2016.
  43. ^ Keivani, A.; et al. (September 26, 2017). "IceCube-170922A: Swift-XRT observations". GCN Circulars. Retrieved April 19, 2018.
  44. ^ Garner, Rob (November 20, 2019). "NASA's Fermi, Swift Missions Enable a New Era in Gamma-ray Science". NASA. Retrieved November 26, 2019.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]