— A new space observatory designed to provide researchers with a better understanding of the physics of the universe was launched successfully into low Earth orbit and deployed both its solar arrays June 11.

NASA’s Gamma-ray Large Area Space Telescope (GLAST) was launched aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta 2 rocket from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station,
The launch was delayed by about 20 minutes due to a long-range tracking glitch. The nearly five-ton observatory is headed for an orbit about
555 kilometers
above Earth.

An operations team is assessing the spacecraft’s subsystems, and GLAST will transmit initial instrument data after about three weeks, NASA said.

“After a 60-day checkout and initial calibration period, we’ll begin science operations,” Steve Ritz, GLAST project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., said in a June 11 NASA press release.

Scientists hope the telescope will help solve some of most befuddling cosmic mysteries, such as the nature of dark matter, the workings of black holes and the mechanics of lighthouse-like spinning pulsars.

General Dynamics served as the systems integrator for the 4,300-kilogram satellite, building its bus, integrating its scientific instruments, and performing full systems testing from its space systems factory in Gilbert, Ariz., a June 11 General Dynamics press release said. The company also will conduct on-orbit testing, the General Dynamics press release said.

GLAST will utilize two scientific instruments: the Large Area Telescope is designed to map the origins of gamma rays; the GLAST Burst Detector will detect and pinpoint and focus the Large Area Telescope on gamma-ray explosions. Gamma-ray light is the most energetic region of the electromagnetic spectrum, far beyond the visible range of the human eye.

“Astrophysicists couldn’t be happier about the launch of GLAST and the discoveries it will make,” said Jon Morse, director of NASA’s astrophysics division at the agency’s headquarters in
. “We’re really at a unique time in the history of science and of astronomy, that we can study the cosmos across the entire electromagnetic spectrum for the first time … GLAST is one of those missions where we’re extending our reach significantly.”

Since GLAST will open up a window on a previously unexplored energy range in the universe, it will truly be venturing into uncharted territory.

“I’m expecting that the most important science GLAST is going to do is actually not yet on anybody’s list,” said Steven Ritz, a GLAST project scientist and astrophysicist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “What we’re very excited about are the surprises.”

The $690 million telescope is the result of almost two decades of work by scores of scientists around the world, including researchers in the
United States

“GLAST is a unique collaboration between particle physicists and astrophysicists across six countries,” Julie McEnery, GLAST’s deputy project scientist, said before the launch. “Together we’ve been able to work to produce an extraordinary observatory with special instruments to detect gamma rays with superb accuracy.”

successful launch comes as a relief to eager scientists who have been waiting for the telescope to lift off since its original intended launch date of May 16. GLAST’s voyage has been postponed repeatedly because of delays in preparing the observatory as well as issues with the rocket that is slated to deliver it to space.