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NASA’s Black-Hole Hunter Begins Mission

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WASHINGTON, June 15, 2012 — The first telescope capable of focusing high-energy x-rays to image black holes and other celestial phenomena in never-before-seen ways was launched Wednesday, NASA officials said.

The Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) shot into orbit from its perch atop the Pegasus XL rocket, separating from the rocket about 13 minutes after the rocket was released from an aircraft flying over the Pacific Ocean south of the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, when it reached its final low Earth orbit.

This series of images shows NASA's NuSTAR and its rocket dropping from the carrier Stargazer plane. (Image: Orbital Sciences Corp.)

NuSTAR will offer its unique set of eyes to see the highest-energy x-ray light from the cosmos. The device can see through dust and gas to reveal black holes lurking in our Milky Way galaxy, as well as galaxies hidden far away.

“NuSTAR will provide a window to the murky world of black holes,” said Georgia Tech astrophysicist David Ballantyne, who has worked on the project, which is overseen by California Institute of Technology professor Fiona Harrison, since 2007. “The high-energy x-ray technology will allow us to see black holes that are buried deep inside their galaxies, hidden behind thick clouds of dust and gas. The goal is to unmask these black holes, study their host galaxies, and figure out how the black holes affect galaxy formation and evolution.”

David Ballantyne (Image: Georgia Institute of Technology)

Ballantyne and his peers plotted three areas in the sky to survey, the largest of which spans approximately five full moons. Together, the surveys will uncover about 500 black holes, some of which have never been detected by any other telescope.

In addition to observing black holes, the x-ray telescope will conduct a sky survey to give astronomers more information about high-energy objects in our universe, including the remains of exploded stars; compact, dead stars; and clusters of galaxies. It will also map supernova explosions and microflares on the surface of the sun, looking for clues as to how it is heated.

Artist's concept of NuSTAR on orbit. NuSTAR has a 10-m (30') mast that deploys after launch to separate the optics modules (right) from the detectors in the focal plane (left). The spacecraft, which controls NuSTAR's pointings, and the solar panels are with the focal plane. NuSTAR has two identical optics modules in order to increase sensitivity. The background is an image of the Galactic center obtained with the Chandra X-ray Observatory. (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The telescope design includes a 33-ft mast that was folded up in a small canister during launch. It will be extended on June 20, enabling the telescope to focus properly. Images and data should be available for Ballantyne and his colleagues in about one month.

NuSTAR is a Small Explorer mission led by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The spacecraft was built by Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va. Its instrument was built by a consortium including Caltech; JPL; the University of California, Berkeley; Columbia University; NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center; the Danish Technical University in Denmark; Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; and ATK Aerospace Systems. The telescope will be operated by UC Berkeley, with the Italian Space Agency providing its equatorial ground station located at Malindi, Kenya.

This image comparison demonstrates NuSTAR's improved ability to focus high-energy x-ray light into sharp images. The image on the left, taken by the European Space Agency's Integral satellite, shows high-energy x-rays from galaxies beyond our own. The light is "unresolved," meaning that individual objects creating the light — in particular, the active supermassive black holes — cannot be distinguished. The image on the right shows a simulated view of what NuSTAR will see at comparable wavelengths. NuSTAR will be able to identify individual black holes making up the diffuse x-ray glow, also called the x-ray background. The observatory will have 100 times better sensitivity than its predecessors, and 10 times sharper resolution. It will probe deeper into the mysterious regions surrounding black holes, and it will discover never-before-seen black holes enshrouded in dust. (Image: ESA/NASA/JPL-Caltech)

“With its unprecedented spatial and spectral resolution to the previously poor explored hard x-ray region of the electromagnetic spectrum, NuSTAR will open a new window on the universe and will provide complementary data to NASA’s larger missions including Fermi, Chandra, Hubble and Spitzer,” said Paul Hertz, NASA’s astrophysics division director.

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Jun 2012
electromagnetic spectrum
The total range of wavelengths, extending from the shortest to the longest wavelength or conversely, that can be generated physically. This range of electromagnetic wavelengths extends practically from zero to infinity and includes the visible portion of the spectrum known as light.
hard x-ray
A type of x-ray that is capable of deep penetration; its wavelength is about 10-8 cm.
An afocal optical device made up of lenses or mirrors, usually with a magnification greater than unity, that renders distant objects more distinct, by enlarging their images on the retina.
AmericasATK Aerospace Systemsblack hole imagingCalifornia Institute of TechnologyColumbia UniversityDavid Ballantyneelectromagnetic spectrumenergyFiona Harrisongalaxy observationGoddard Space Flight Centerhard x-rayhigh-energy x-raysimagingItalian Space AgencyKenyaLawrence Livermore National LaboratorymicroflaresNASANuclear Spectroscopic Telescope ArrayNuSTAR telescopeOrbital Sciences Corp.Paul HertzResearch & TechnologySensors & Detectorsspectral resolutionsupernova explosion mappingtelescopeUniversity of California BerkeleyWashingtonx-ray telescope

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