NASA’s NuSTAR Hunts for Black Holes
NASA is nearly ready to take a whole new look at the universe, thanks to a recently launched telescope that uses high spatial and spectral resolution technology to explore the X-ray region of the electromagnetic spectrum. That technology will allow the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) to peer into buried black holes, among other things.
Last week, the observatory unfolded a massive mast in orbit, one of the last steps necessary for the craft to begin its mission. The 10 meter mast (constructed from stackable cubes made of carbon fiber rods) separates the telescope’s mirrors from the detectors. That distance is necessary for the observatory to focus X-ray light. This optics design grew out of a Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory project called HEFT (High Energy Focusing Telescope).
Because the mast would have been too large to launch aboard the lower-cost rocket used to send NuSTAR into orbit, the telescope was tucked inside a small canister aboard Orbital Science’s Pegasus rocket. According to NASA, the mast (built by ATK Aerospace Systems) is the first deployable mast ever used on a space telescope.
NuSTAR will orbit Earth at an altitude of 600 km for three years, allowing NASA to conduct a “census” of black holes. The observatory will also study other high-energy objects, including the remains of exploded stars, dead stars, and clusters of galaxies. NuSTAR is expected to begin formal operation on July 31, when it begins photographing nearby black hole Cygnus X-1.
You can view an animated video demonstrating how the telescope will work (and how the mast unfolded) below: