Telescope to hunt for black holes
LOS ANGELES—The U.S. space agency launched its newest X-ray space telescope yesterday on a mission to hunt for black holes and other hard-to-see objects lurking in the Milky Way and other galaxies.
“It’s a terrific day,” assistant launch director Tim Dunn said.
The telescope was boosted into orbit by a rocket released from a aircraft that took off from the remote Kwajalein Atoll, a Pacific island halfway between Hawaii and Australia.
The Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuStar for short, focuses high-energy X-rays to peer through gas and dust in search of supermassive black holes in the centre of galaxies, remnants of exploded stars, and other exotic celestial objects.
While black holes are invisible, the region around them gives off telltale X-rays. NuStar will observe previously known black holes and map hidden ones.
Scientists hope to better understand how galaxies form and evolve.
“We can view black holes and galaxies even if they’re enshrouded with dust and gas,” chief scientist Fiona Harrison, of the California Institute of Technology, said earlier this week.
“If you had high-energy X-ray eyes and you stared up out of the galaxy, what you would see is the glow of all the massive black holes sprinkled throughout the cosmos,” she explained.
NuStar also will hunt for the remains of ancient supernovae—stars that exploded in past centuries.
If it’s lucky, it’ll witness a star’s death throes, but such events don’t happen often and the telescope will have to be pointed at the right place at the right time.
The launch comes at a trying time for NASA’s astrophysics division. Last week, the space agency killed an X-ray telescope mission because it failed to come in on budget.
That mission, called GEMS, was supposed to launch in 2014 and would have observed many of the same targets as NuStar.
NASA, however, is pressing ahead with its flagship astrophysics mission—the budget-busting James Webb Space Telescope, considered the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope.
It has the capability of peering deeper into the universe and back in time than ever, and is expected to launch in 2018 with an $8-billion price tag.