Black hole hunter reaches orbit

2012-06-14 07:28

Houston - An innovative X-ray telescope blasted off aboard an unmanned air-launched rocket on Wednesday to begin a two-year mission to ferret out black holes and other high-energy celestial phenomena in space, Nasa officials said.

The Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, nicknamed NuStar, shot toward orbit aboard a Pegasus XL rocket seconds after being released from an aircraft flying about 12 200m over the Pacific Ocean south of the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.

Circling the Earth in orbit, one of the X-ray telescope's initial jobs will be to conduct a sky survey, intended to give astronomers more information about how galaxies formed.

Its technology will later be used to examine galaxy clusters, supernova explosions and certain regions of space where particles are being accelerated close to the speed of light, such as around black holes.

In studying supernovas - the exploded remains of giant stars - scientists will be looking for telltale chemical fingerprints of radioactive titanium.

Hiding black holes

"There's a whole variety of phenomenon from very extreme neutron stars to remnants of old stellar explosions we haven't discovered yet," said lead scientist Fiona Harrison, with the California Institute of Technology.

Supernovas are an important measuring stick for determining the universe's rate of expansion. Because astronomers believe they give off roughly the same amount of light, measuring their brightness has been used to determine how distant they are, much like how a standard 100W light bulb appears dimmer if it is farther away.

"With these observations, we'll get a better idea of the physics of supernova explosions," said NuSTAR project scientist Daniel Stern, with Nasa's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California.

Using NuStar to study high-energy X-rays, which can pass through obscuring gas and dust, also should reveal the locations of black holes, scientists said.

"We're pretty sure that every big galaxy has a super-massive black hole in its centre and the models predict that most of the ones that are actively accreting material and get very bright are being hidden by gas and dust around them," Stern said.

NuSTAR will be able to pin down how many black holes are hiding, how big they are and where they are located.

NuSTAR complements Nasa's Chandra X-ray observatory and Europe's XMM-Newton telescope, both of which study cosmic X-ray light in lower energy wavelengths.

The telescope consists of two sets of 133 concentric shells of mirrors, made from flexible glass, such as what is used in laptop computer screens. Since X-rays need a large area to focus, NuSTAR has a 10.5m mast that is expected to unfold on 20 June.

Both the telescope, which cost about $180m, and the Pegasus launcher were built by Orbital Sciences Corp.

  • Zing - 2012-06-14 08:01

    I was expecting to read that it would be travelling to outer space to search for black holes, only to remember we haven't even managed to travel out of our solar system yet. :) This is good news! Keep it coming!

  • mark.ross.779 - 2012-06-14 08:15

    Witwolf and William. How.. Just how do you manage to make this into a race issue? and also, why? That's so far off topic.. shame, you okes must have massive chips on your shoulders. Fascinating to see stuff like these satellites and what scientists can do.. Incredibly clever people, blows my mind

      spookhuis - 2012-06-14 08:32

      I think they were referring to the amount tax money that has gone missing, nothing to do with race, just poor management of this continent.

      mark.ross.779 - 2012-06-14 08:48

      I get it.. I just was keen to read thoughts on the satellite, not the same old same old in the comments. Was hoping people might have insights beyond 'anc is rubbish'

      ben.louw.5 - 2012-06-14 09:15

      Always the same old inevitable boring comments. This article could have been about a sandbox filled with coffee that's got a slight scent of cement, and some body would try and make a comment about race/ANC or's getting really old... "Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt."

      LanfearM - 2012-06-14 11:12

      @ william.botha.9 - this is not about "lighten up". Comments such as that made by WitWolf [and the name says everything] is nothing but racist rhetoric poorly disguised as humour, written by somebody who is probably obsessed with ethnicity.

      WitWolf - 2012-06-14 11:37

      @LanfearM I'm not racist about anything. Have you even read my comments in other articles. I defend all South Africans against greedy governments stealing from their own people and winning elections with lies upon lies... I agree with William. I also have a weird sense of humour.

      LanfearM - 2012-06-14 13:05

      Haha, ok. I accept you have weird sense of humour. Perhaps I am just over-sensitized these days due to all the negative comments here on News24 and elsewhere. Nice profile pic btw, WitWolf.

      WitWolf - 2012-06-14 16:14

      @LanfearM Thank you. not just negative comments but it seems like negative articles are the norm on the news these days...

  • ben.louw.5 - 2012-06-14 09:16

    Awesome news! Cant wait for the first feedback...

      almeleh - 2012-06-14 10:23

      I agree. Lets focus on all the knowledge we will gain from this.

  • LanfearM - 2012-06-14 11:11

    Excellent news! Looking forward to the data it will generate.

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