Reaching for the stars: Czech astronomers make significant discovery


The Czech Republic is making yet another contribution to space exploration. The Czech scientific team is helping to operate the satellite Integral which is discovering gamma ray sources. What's going on with the gamma flashes? Where are they coming from?

The satellite Integral has detected ten gamma flashes since it was launched late last year by countries cooperating with the European Space Agency, often referred to as ESA. Although deadly for all living creatures on Earth, scientists believe they might eventually be able to use gamma rays as a powerful source of energy. Dr. Rene Hudec, an astronomer with the Czech Academy of Sciences and the gamma ray research guru of Czech science, describes the project:

"We are looking for sources of high energy processes: this means, for example, very high temperatures, high densities, very energetic processes, very large energy eruptions and so on. Something very interesting is occurring, like neutron stars, black holes and still puzzling gamma ray bursts. For example, the Czech team is focusing on something which is still very amazing - namely, the investigation of gamma ray bursts which very probably are related to the lives of stars."

For Czech scientists the success story reached its peak last month. Dr. Hudec again:

"The greatest discovery for the Czech team is a gamma ray burst occurring on the first of May. We have excellent images of gamma rays. We believe it is something very interesting, and now we are continuing doing more precise scientific analysis."

This recent discovery is by no means one of the first achievements in Czech astronomy. The field has a long history in the Czech Lands, going back to the Middle Ages. During the fourteenth century astronomy became one of the first subjects taught at Prague University, now called Charles University. Prague's world-acclaimed astronomical clock also dates from that historical period. Many famous scientists have published important works and carried out research while in Prague: Tycho Brahe, Johann Kepler and Albert Einstein are just a few who helped Prague become an important world-wide intersection in science. While astronomy flourished during the First Czechoslovak Republic in the early twentieth century and even later on, grimmer days came after the Soviet Union led an invasion on Czechoslovakia in 1968. The tanks rolled in, and many internationally recognized Czech astronomers fled the country. Ever since the downfall of communism, astronomy once again has been making great strides here. Last year Czech astronomers even convinced Parliament to approve the world's first nationwide law in an effort to restrict light pollution.

The Integral project could breed even more positive results as the Czech Republic's first official cooperation with the European Space Agency may develop into an even more fruitful relationship. Still, the Czech Republic is a far cry from becoming a member of the agency, even though the Czech government has signed an agreement with ESA. One of the main obstacles is funding. Nevertheless, Dr. Hudec foresees numerous possibilities opening up for Czech science:

"We welcome the efforts of the European Space Agency very much as they invited the Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, and Poland to take part in a project which focuses on these Central European countries. It should be very important for Czech scientific teams because it will support a much larger extent of collaboration between the Czech Republic and ESA. For example, all Czech teams, including Czech companies, will be able to take part in tenders of ESA, getting contracts, which can be very important for technology in the Czech Republic and for companies that we have here in the space sector."

Author: Tracy Burns
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