NASA Launching NuSTAR Satellite to Study Black Holes


NASA is preparing to launch a new satellite, the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR), which will study everything from black holes to the sun.

“We will see the hottest, densest and most energetic objects with a fundamentally new, high-energy X-ray telescope that can obtain much deeper and crisper images than before,” said Fiona Harrison, the NuSTAR principal investigator at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., who first conceived of the mission 20 years ago.

The observatory will be launched on top of a Pegasus XL rocket and placed into a low-earth orbit.

“NuSTAR uses several innovations for its unprecedented imaging capability and was made possible by many partners,” said Yunjin Kim, the project manager for the mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “We’re all really excited to see the fruition of our work begin its mission in space.”

This will be the first space telescope to take focused images of cosmic x-rays with the highest energies, the same type of x-rays used in medical and security devices. The satellite is a big improvement over its predecessors, with more than 10 times the resolution and more than 100 times the sensitivity.

The observatory will work in concert with others, including NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, which images lower energy x-rays. Together, they will create a more complete picture of the most energetic and exotic objects in space, such as black holes, dead stars, and gas jets traveling near the speed of light.

“NuSTAR truly demonstrates the value that NASA’s research and development programs provide in advancing the nation’s science agenda,” said Paul Hertz, NASA’s Astrophysics Division director. “Taking just over four years from receiving the project go-ahead to launch, this low-cost Explorer mission will use new mirror and detector technology that was developed in NASA’s basic research program and tested in NASA’s scientific ballooning program. The result of these modest investments is a small space telescope that will provide world-class science in an important but relatively unexplored band of the electromagnetic spectrum.”

NuSTAR is designed primarily to answer questions about the formation and physics of black holes. But it is also designed to investigate how exploding stars form the heavier elements in the universe, the ones that make up all known-life and planets.

“The observatory is able to focus the high-energy X-ray light into sharp images because of a complex, innovative telescope design. High-energy light is difficult to focus because it only reflects off mirrors when hitting at nearly parallel angles. NuSTAR solves this problem with nested shells of mirrors. It has the most nested shells ever used in a space telescope: 133 in each of two optic units. The mirrors were molded from ultra-thin glass similar to that found in laptop screens and glazed with even thinner layers of reflective coating.”

The telescope is outfitted with other state-of-the-art detectors, and a long 33-foot mast, which connects the detectors to the nested mirrors, providing the long distance needed to focus the X-rays.

During the launch the mast will be folded up into a small canister on top of the Pegasus launch vehicle. About seven days after launch it will then unfurl, and about 23 days later the science operations will begin.

Source and Images: NASA/JPL

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