Telescope launches to explore black holes

Telescope launches to explore black holes
Artist's concept of NuSTAR on orbit. NASA/JPL-Caltech
Tech Corner

POSTED: Wednesday, June 13, 2012 - 12:00pm

UPDATED: Wednesday, June 13, 2012 - 12:04pm

A powerful telescope array is headed for space today. Its starting point isn't a Cape Canaveral launch pad, but rather a plane that takes off from Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands in the central Pacific Ocean.

NuSTAR will launch into orbit today, no earlier than 11:30 a.m., NASA says. NuSTAR stands for Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array.

NuSTAR, with its specialized "X-ray eyes," has 10 times the resolution and 100 times the sensitivity of similar telescopes. It has the capability to study black holes and explore how exploding stars form the elements from which the universe is composed.

This is a plane-assisted launch, so it's less expensive than the dramatic liftoffs from the ground. From the air, less fuel is required to help the goods escape Earth's gravitational pull.

An Orbital Science Corporation L-1011 "Stargazer" plane will fly over the Pacific Ocean and carry a Pegasus XL rocket. The rocket will drop from the plane and then ignite and propel the telescope array. Here's a video from NASA of a previous Pegasus launch.

The rocket has a motor that will burn for 70 seconds before dropping away, and then the second-stage motor will start burning. Meanwhile, the nose cone with NuSTAR in it will release.

The telescope array will separate from the rocket's third stage about 13 minutes after being released from the plane at an altitude of about 340 miles.

In about a week the NuSTAR will deploy a 33-foot boom, which will allow for X-ray light to be focused into sharp images. The boom is long because the mirrors and the detectors need to be far apart in order to focus X-ray light - sort of like if a face and eyeglasses were separated by a few feet.

The science operational stuff will start about 30 days after NuSTAR launches, NASA said.

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