NASA to launch NuSTAR x-ray telescope to seek black holes

13 Jun 2012

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Orbital Science Corporation's Stargazer plane releases its Pegasus rocket. NASA's NuSTAR will also launch today from a Pegasus carried by the Stargazer plane. Image by Orbital Sciences Corporation

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Today is the launch day of NASA’s nuclear spectroscopic telescope array, NuSTAR, the first-ever space telescope that will allow astronomers to study the universe in high-energy X-rays. The telescope will launch from Kwajalein Atoll in the central Pacific Ocean at around 12pm EDT (5pm BST).

NASA is currently streaming live coverage ahead of the launch in about 26 minutes.

About an hour before today’s launch, an Orbital Sciences Corporation plane, dubbed Stargazer, is expected to lift off Kwajalein Atoll in the central Pacific Ocean and drop NuSTAR and its rocket over the ocean. NASA is hoping the rocket will then ignite, carrying NuSTAR to its final orbit around the Earth’s equator.

NASA has confirmed weather conditions present only a 1pc chance of violating the criteria in the drop box area.

The NuSTAR mission itself is being led by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

It will deploy the first focusing telescopes to image the sky in the high-energy X-ray (6 – 79 keV) region of the electromagnetic spectrum, according to the space agency, which is expecting it to greatly exceed the performance of the largest ground-based observatories that have observed this region of the electromagnetic spectrum to date.

For instance, X-ray telescopes such as Chandra and XMM-Newton have observed the X-ray universe at low X-ray energy levels.

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. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Artist’s concept of NuSTAR in 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. Image by NASA/JPL-Caltech

During a two-year primary mission phase, NuSTAR will map selected regions, such as the centre of our Milky Way galaxy, as well as performing deep observations of the extragalactic sky.

Astronomers using its data will also be hoping to answer questions about the universe, such as how black holes are dispersed through the cosmos and to learn more about how stars explode and how elements are created.

The telescope will also study the origins of cosmic rays and extreme physics around collapsed stars.  

Carmel was a long-time reporter with Siliconrepublic.com

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