NASA Launches NuSTAR Space Telescope To Hunt for Black Holes

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NEW YORK — NASA’s newest space telescope, an ambitious X-ray observatory, launched into orbit June 13 on a mission to peer deep into the universe and study the violent regions around black holes.

The Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) spacecraft launched spaceward at the tip of an Orbital Sciences Corp. Pegasus XL rocket, which itself was carried into launch position by a high-altitude L-1011 Stargazer jet aircraft. At 12 p.m. Eastern Time, the plane dropped the rocket where the booster fired its engines for its climb into the sky.

“Today was a great day for NuSTAR, a great day for Pegasus, a great day for the entire launch team,” Tim Dunn, NASA’s assistant launch director, said after the liftoff. “We thank Orbital Sciences for the ride, and we’re ready to get into the science portion of the mission.”

The liftoff occurred just south of the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. Originally scheduled for 11:30 a.m. Eastern Time, the launch was delayed 30 minutes to allow technicians to resolve a minor technical issue.

The $165 million NuSTAR observatory is beginning a two-year mission to probe high-energy regions of the universe, including black holes and the remnants of stars that died in supernova explosions. It will use a telescope sensitive to regions of the X-ray spectrum of light that are higher in energy than observed before.

“With NuSTAR, we’ll be able to image the sky, read the story and understand things like how galaxies form, and how black holes grow,” NuSTAR Principal Investigator Fiona Harrison of the California Institute of Technology said during a June 11 press briefing. “It will pinpoint these massive black holes and locate them within galaxies.”

In the next several days, NuSTAR will extend a 10-meter mast that will separate the spacecraft’s optics from a focal point where a camera is placed, making the whole instrument roughly the length of a school bus. The telescope uses two optical units made of 133 nested layers of glass each, which will collect X-ray light and deflect it to the focal point at the mast’s other end.

One of the telescope’s first targets will be a well-known black hole close to home.

“One of the first things we’ll look at is Cygnus X-1, a black hole in our own galaxy, which acts as a perfect point source for us to check how crisp our images are,” said William Craig, NuSTAR instrument manager at the University of California at Berkeley.

NuSTAR also will study the center of the Milky Way galaxy, where a supermassive black hole containing the mass of 4 million suns is thought to reside. A number of fuzzy light sources at the galaxy’s center suggest the presence of this black hole, but details are scant.

NuSTAR will “give us both the energy and location of all these sources, allowing us to really probe in the high energy [spectra] into the physics of the objects that are at the galactic center,” Craig said. “It opens up a new window into the high-energy universe.”