Terry Miesle's scratchbuilt Chandra X-Ray Observatory .

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Scratchbuilt Chandra X-Ray Observatory

By Terry Miesle - images & text © 1999

[I seeee you ................]

I have always been fascinated by astronomy. Similarly, I have been drawn to satellites as a blend of utilitarian form-following-function and dazzling shapes and colors. They are built in sterile, dust-free rooms, then released into one of the harshest environments imaginable. They are our eyes and ears in space, and make unique subjects for models.

The Chandra observatory is named for noted astronomer and mathematician Chandrasekar, whose calculations predicted black holes, one of the primary targets of x-ray observations. It is one of three x-ray observatories to be released within the next several years. X-Rays do not penetrate our atmosphere, so all observations must be made in orbit. A space-based telescope will certainly provide new insights to the makeup of our universe.


^ Side and rear views of the completed model.

When I saw the coverage of NASA’s Chandra satellite observatory launch I decided to build a model of it for an upcoming model contest. The Real Space category is one of the least populated categories at shows, and usually has the typical assortment of Space Shuttles and Lunar Landers. As nice as these are, they are getting old. With only 3 weeks ‘till the show, I set out to give people something to talk about.


My research was carried out almost exclusively on the web, though a timely issue of Science arrived at my door about halfway through the building process. Most of the following can be accessed through www.spacer.com if you search for Chandra links. References are listed at the end of this article.


[The guts] I decided to build the main shapes from foam. This would be covered in foil, so it didn't matter what it looked like to start with. I printed images from the web, carefully measured and laid the basic shapes out with graph paper. These shapes I cut from green flower-arrangement foam.

The two major shapes of the satellite's body are a cone and an octagon (which tapers to a cone), I needed help with circular shapes. I employed plastic jars to provide the correct circular shapes, either cutting a section from the jar (with a bandsaw) or using the lid. These plastic rings were glued in place with epoxy. The octagonal portion was cut to place, and the appropriate sized jar lid was used to indent a circle where it would be placed later. Then I cut away material and hollowed out the space inside, which I would need for the next step.

I knew the foam would not support the rods for the solar panels or support base. I pushed styrene tubes into the foam, and placed epoxy on the inside to anchor the tubes for the ages. These tubes had an interior diameter which would just fit either the support rod or solar panels.


All the foam surfaces would be covered with aluminum foil. This works well if you use a very thin foil. The satellite is foil covered for insulation, most of which is loose and wrinkled. I coated the foam with 15-minute epoxy and wrapped the foil around each surface. Portions of foil were cut to specifically to cover the unusually shaped surfaces. The end of Chandra contains some conventional cameras and instrumentation. This area was built out of styrene stock, covered with foil, and the windows painted gloss black.

The cone and octagonal body were built to fit very snugly, allowing most construction to continue in several sub-assemblies.

On the front end I used a jar lid. I cut a circle in the top, to accept a series of concentric rings (magnetic lenses) glued to radial strips of styrene. These rings are gaskets I found in the local Ace Hardware plumbing section. This front section was covered in foil, and the ring section was painted TMM Chrome Silver then glued behind the hole.

The protective lid on the satellite was cut from thin styrene, and another gasket (the one used as a template for the hole in the telescope opening) was glued to this lid. I used a strip of styrene to emulate the hinge assembly, and painted that TMM Gunmetal.

A frame of plastic-coated wire (Evergreen) was built to accept the solar panels. I used graph paper to help me get exact shapes (this was done for the radial ring supports, too). I superglued two sections of wire together, then added the bracing wire. The solar panels are Evergreen ¼” tile-patterned styrene sheet superglued onto the wire frames. They are two-sided. I covered these in Ultra Bright Chrome Bare-Metal Foil, then airbrushed them with Tamiya Clear Blue Acrylic paint. The wire frame received TMM Gold paint. The entire assembly was then coated with Future Acrylic polish.


[another angle]



After the cone had been attached to the front body, and half of a 35mm film canister had been glued behind the telescope lens I added the color to the foil. I used Tamiya Clear Yellow paint tinted with Tamiya Clear Red to obtain a gold hue. This was brushed on the foil in the appropriate areas.

The lens front was placed in position, and little detail bits were glued here and there to mimic panels and items on the satellite. My goal was not to absolutely replicate every detail, but to show the major items and hint at added details. These items were painted with TMM Gunmetal and TMM Aluminum Enamels. Finally, the model was mounted onto acrylic rod stuck into one of the epoxied styrene tubes, and the solar panels were placed in their respective tubes. This idea paid off, the parts have not moved since – though they can be readily removed or repositioned.


This project was a lot of fun, very fast and a good dose of creativity. Most of my projects tend to be kitbuilding or kitbashing, pure scratchbuilding isn't something I do often. The satellite model is big, shiny, and draws a lot of attention. The Chandra observatory has already provided surprising results, when pointed to what had been thought to be a point source for its first calibration, the object turned out to have a jet of gas nearly half the size of our own galaxy. I'll look forward to following Chandra's activities now that I have something of a personal connection…


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