June 13, 2012

Black Hole Hunter NuSTAR’s Unique Launch Successful

Lee Rannals for

Commercialized space industry has taken another step in collaboration with NASA as the space agency's NuSTAR telescope launched Wednesday morning.

NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) was launched in a unique way by The Orbital Science Corporation's "Stargazer" plane.

Stargazer took off from Kwajalein Atoll, and released its Pegasus rocket, which carried NASA's NuSTAR the rest of the way towards space.

"Pegasus is our most unique rocket, period," Omar Baez, launch director for NASA's Launch Services Program, or LSP, said in a press release. "First off, it has a wing. The way we launch it is we drop it like a weapon or a bomb and a few seconds later this thing lights off and scoots in front of the L-1011. It's unique in all kinds of aspects."

NASA said that plane-assisted launches are less expensive than launches from the ground, and less fuel is needed to boost cargo away from Earth's gravity.

Stargazer climbed to an altitude of about 39,000 feet this morning before dropping Pegasus from its belly. The rocket free-fell for about five-seconds before igniting, carrying NuSTAR into space in just about three minutes.

After about 13 minutes, NuSTAR reached its final orbit, and is circling the Earth for the rest of its mission at about 340 miles with an inclination of six degrees.

In roughly one week, NASA engineers will command NuSTAR to deploy its 33-foot boom, which will allow the telescope to focus X-ray light into crisp images. X-ray telescopes require a long distance between the mirrors and detectors to focus the light, similar to wearing glasses a few feet away from your face, NASA said.

"We are going to open up the high-energy window on the universe," Daniel Stern, project scientist for NuSTAR, said in a press release. "It's going to teach us a lot about the universe, from what heats the atmosphere of the sun to understanding black holes."

NuSTAR will be studying black holes hidden behind dust and gas in galaxies, similar to how dentist look at teeth through X-rays.

"We think two out of every three black holes in the universe are hidden," Stern said.

The telescope is about 775 pounds, and is the same size as a refrigerator, according to Garrett Skrobot, NuSTAR's mission manager for LSP.

"But it only has one basic instrument on the spacecraft itself whereas the other spacecraft have multiple instruments on them," Skrobot said.

NuSTAR scientists will team up with NASA's Chandra and Fermi missions to observe cosmic objects simultaneously. Astronomers will be able to use the instruments to better understand some of the highest energy in the Universe.

"We have planned observations of things we're safely sure we're going to see," Stern said, "but the big excitement is we might see things that are unexpected."