Lie back on soft grass in a place with little city-lights pollution -- near New Hampshire's White Mountains? -- and drink in the summer's night sky.

FormansChristine Jones and William Forman at home. On screen is Chandra's X-ray image of the hot gas surrounding galaxy M87, at the center of the Virgo cluster.

What do you see? The Big Dipper ladles pinpoints of light. A trio of stars studding Orion's belt beckons.

Squinting, you see the Milky Way, the hazy band of fiery spheres that embrace us.

Chandra sees far more -- back toward the beginning of our Universe.

The X-ray telescope has advantages over ordinary vision. The NASA project hosted at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics circles the Earth in a highly elliptical orbit with a maximum distance of about 85,000 miles in space, giving scientists a clearer view of exploded stars, clusters of galaxies and black holes.

Those who study what Chandra sees are town residents William Forman and Christine Jones, part of a team of 160 that includes a number who live in town. 

20th anniversary of Chandra

This remarkable eye into the distant past, one that transforms our present, observes its 20th anniversary this month.

Among our many-faceted residents

"I have been very fortunate to work with very smart people," Christine said in an interview at their home about the past 45-year association with the Center for Astrophysics. She stepped down this year as president of the American Astronomical Society.

At a dining-room table arrayed with images from Chandra, her husband gave credit to a mentor for them both, Riccardo Giacconi, who gave them "incredible responsibility." The X-ray astronomy pioneer who won the Nobel Prize in 2002 advanced both in the 1970s. Since 2010, William has been director of the High Energy Division at the Center for Astrophysics, where the Chandra X-ray Center is situated.

The informal two-hour chat ranged over the heavens -- and their lives.

Quote bar, red Chandra connections in Arlington

In April, when Chandra made news with the discovery of a black hole, Kathleen Lestition posted on the Arlington email list:

"There is indeed a connection between the black hole observation and Arlington. By my count, there are at least 12 people working on the Chandra X-ray Observatory, which is operated from the Center for Astrophysics|Harvard-Smithsonian, who live in Arlington ....

"The Chandra mission simultaneously observed M87, the galaxy in which the black hole observed by the EHT [Event Horizon Telescope] is located, to provide a wide-field view that locates the position of the black hole within its home galaxy."

The Formans provided these names of town residents:

Jan M. Vrtilek, Chandra flight director, astrophysicist, as well as mission planner;

Jeremy J. Drake, LETG instrument scientist, senior astrophysicist, calibration (Chandra Science Division);

Antonella Fruscione, astrophysicist, Chandra Director's Office and science data system planning (Science Division).

Paul J. Green, astrophysicist, Chandra director's office;

Terrance Gaetz, astrophysicist, calibration (Chandra Science Division);

Frank James Nigro, Unix systems administrator, hardware and systems (Chandra Data Systems Division);

Tara Gokas, lead IT specialist, Chandra Director's Office; and

Lestition is Chandra education and communications coordinator.

Town residents who formerly worked on Chandra are Mike and Jiahong Juda. Mike was lead flight director and missions operations manager from 2004 until his death in 2016. Jiahong worked on Chandra from 1993 to 1997 as astrophysicist, gratings calibration.

Quote bar, red

Calm attitude; fiery depths

They offer gentle presences, quite apart from the fire and wonder that their work peering into deep space reveals.

Christine's smile is wise and spare, her comments tinged with her Ohio roots. Bill's boyish smile is set off with curling locks. He retains a bit of his native New Rochelle, N.Y.

She lived near Dayton, not far from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, where she was involved in a program, which triggered her interest in astronomy. While in high school, she took math at Ohio State under a National Science Foundation program begun by Arnold Ross, a legend in math education. In a number-theory class of about 50, as few as seven were girls.

She graduated from Harvard-Radcliffe in 1971. Asked what drew her to the stars, Christine, 70, called it "exciting" to "learn about the newest" in science.

Bill, 71, said he always loved math the best and "drifted into half astronomy/half physics." He called it a "nonconscious drift." The 1969 Haverford College graduate went on to Harvard.

Key dates

The couple's work dates from before their marriage in July 1973 and follows discoveries made under three key X-ray observation projects -- Uhuru (1970 to '73), Einstein (1978 to '81) and Chandra (July 23, 1999 to present). 

Looking back 3.4 billion light-years into the Universe, Chandra observes such visible phenomena as a bullet cluster, two colliding clusters of galaxies, as well providing parameters for what is unseen, "dark matter," which accounts for 85 percent of  matter in clusters.

What Chandra shows us are "great images," he says simply.


Beyond the mission of scientific discovery for its own sake, what has been the impact of these glimpses into deep space?

Bill opened a book to the Einstein field equations. The mathematical expression underlies the General Theory of Relativity -- which has a number of applications, including GPS way-finding.

"One hundreds year later [after Einstein published his equations], we can't live without them," he said.

Main Chandra website

April 10, 2019: Black Hole Image Makes History; NASA Telescopes Coordinated Observations 

June 18, 2019: What Have We Learned from 20 Years of X-rays?

This news feature was published Tuesday, July 23, 2019.