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Launch on 13 June Planned for Space Mission to Investigate High-Powered X-Rays

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08 June 2012

blue camera icon More images are available at the NuSTAR mission homepage.

Pegasus rocket attached to underside of jet

Pegasus Attached to L-1011: The Orbital Sciences Pegasus XL rocket with NASA's NuSTAR spacecraft is attached to the L-1011 carrier aircraft known as "Stargazer." Credit: NASA/Randy Beaudoin, VAFB

A new space telescope is scheduled to rocket into orbit during a launch window that begins on 13 June 2012 at 11:30 a.m. EDT (8:30 a.m. PDT). Penn State astronomers are among the scientists who will use NASA's new Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) to hunt for black holes and other dramatic objects in space that produce high-powered X-rays.

The Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, NuSTAR, will launch on a Pegasus rocket into Earth orbit where it will detect high-energy X-rays to uncover hidden black holes, exploded stars and other features of the universe. Credit: NASA

NuSTAR will create highly focused images of high-energy cosmic X-rays with much greater sensitivity and clarity than ever before -- the same types of X-rays used in medical imaging and airport scanners. "NuSTAR's targeted sensitivity to high-energy X-rays will enable us to penetrate through the gas and dust that surrounds and obscures the supermassive black holes at the centers of the most-energetic galaxy cores, which we call active galactic nuclei," said William Niel Brandt, Distinguished Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State. Brandt is a member of two NuSTAR Science Team Working Groups: "Obscured Active Galactic Nuclei" and "Extragalactic Surveys." Bin Luo, a postdoctoral scholar in Brandt's research group, also is a member of NuSTAR's Extragalactic Surveys working group.

The NuSTAR observatory will be launched from Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands on an Orbital Sciences Corporation Pegasus XL launch vehicle that will be released from an aircraft while it is flying southward from the atoll. Photos and links to more information are online at http://science.psu.edu/news-and-events/2012-news/Brandt6-2012. Live coverage and commentary will be broadcast online beginning at 10:00 a.m. EDT, 90 minutes before scheduled launch, at http://www.nasa.gov/nustar and http://www.ustream.tv/nasajpl2.

The pegasus rocket separating from the jet in mid-air.Pegasus XL Launch Vehicle: NuSTAR will launch into a low-Earth, near-equatorial orbit on a Pegasus XL rocket from Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The Pegasus launch vehicle, built by Orbital Space Corporation, relies on a unique air-launch system with the rocket released at approximately 40,000 feet from the "Stargazer" L-1011 aircraft. The rocket then free-falls in a horizontal position for five seconds before igniting its three-stage rocket motor. Credit: Orbital Sciences Corp.

The mission's focus includes some of the hottest, densest, and most energetic objects in the universe, including black holes, high-speed jets traveling at nearly the speed of light, ultra-dense neutron stars, and supernova remnants, as well as the Sun. Among its several goals, NuSTAR will tackle the puzzle of how black holes and galaxies evolve together over cosmic time.

Brandt said he is particularly excited to begin X-ray investigations of some quasars that are highly obscured by the winds they are driving from the nuclear region of their galaxies. "These winds blow at millions of miles per hour -- you definitely wouldn't want to get caught in one," he said. "We want to measure the amount of obscuring material to help understand the wind's power. We also want to determine the strength of the underlying X-ray emission from the black hole as it pulls in, or accretes, the matter that is swirling around it."

Scientists explain how NASA's newest mission of exploration will gather important data about one of the Universe's most interesting and perplexing phenomena.

As part of the "Obscured Active Galactic Nuclei" effort, Brandt is leading a program to analyze the separate wavelengths of high-energy radiation from Broad Absorption Line quasars. "The brilliant radiation being produced by these quasars drives powerful outflowing winds that are important because material associated with the winds may provide feedback into the galaxy in which the quasar lives, by sweeping up surrounding gas. This process can affect star formation and the ability of the black hole to accrete and grow further," Brandt explained.

The "Extragalactic Surveys" Science Team Working Group will use NuSTAR to survey with high sensitivity two well-studied extragalactic fields. One of these fields is the Extended Chandra Deep Field-South, which Brandt's group has been investigating extensively since 2005. Brandt and Luo will help with the NuSTAR data analysis and the interpretation efforts on extragalactic surveys, especially helping to make connections between the NuSTAR data, corresponding Chandra data, and corresponding multiwavelength data.

A satellite against black background
Artist's concept of NuSTAR on orbit. NuSTAR has a 10-m (30') mast that deploys after launch to separate the optics modules (right) from the detectors in the focal plane (left). The spacecraft, which controls NuSTAR's pointings, and the solar panels are with the focal plane. NuSTAR has two identical optics modules in order to increase sensitivity. The background is an image of the Galactic center obtained with the Chandra X-ray Observatory. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The observatory has more than 10 times the resolution, and more than 100 times the sensitivity, of its predecessor telescopes while operating in a similar energy range. "We will see the hottest, densest and most energetic objects with a fundamentally new high-energy X-ray telescope that can obtain much deeper and crisper images than before," said Fiona Harrison, the NuSTAR principal investigator at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena who first conceived of the mission 20 years ago. The mission will work with other telescopes in space now, including NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, which observes lower-energy X-rays, and NASA's Swift space satellite, whose science and flight operations are controlled from Penn State's Mission Operations Center in State College. Together, the three observatories will provide a more complete picture of the most energetic and exotic objects in space.

In addition to Brandt and Luo, several former members of Brandt's research group at Penn State are participating NuSTAR scientists, including Dave Alexander, a former postdoctoral scholar who now is a professor at Durham University; Franz Bauer, a former postdoctoral scholar who now is a professor in Chile at Pontificia Universidad Catolica; and Ann Hornschemeier, a former graduate student who now is a research astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. Jane Rigby, who earned her undergraduate degree at Penn State, also is a member of the NuSTAR science team.

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NuSTAR is a Small Explorer mission led by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, also in Pasadena, for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The spacecraft was built by Orbital Sciences Corporation, Dulles, Va. Its instrument was built by a consortium including Caltech; JPL; the University of California, Berkeley; Columbia University, New York; NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.; the Danish Technical University in Denmark; Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Livermore, Calif.; and ATK Aerospace Systems, Goleta, Calif. NuSTAR will be operated by UC Berkeley, with the Italian Space Agency providing its equatorial ground station located at Malindi, Kenya. The mission's outreach program is based at Sonoma State University, Rohnert Park, Calif. NASA's Explorer Program is managed by Goddard. JPL is managed by Caltech for NASA. Launch management and government oversight for the mission is the responsibility of NASA's Launch Services Program at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. More information is online at http://www.nasa.gov/nustar and http://www.nustar.caltech.edu/.

side-by-side stellar skies, one quite blurry, the other quite sharp.

Artist's concept: Bringing Black Holes Into Focus -- This image comparison demonstrates NuSTAR's improved ability to focus high-energy X-ray light into sharp images. The image on the LEFT, taken by the European Space Agency's INTEGRAL satellite, shows high-energy X-rays from galaxies beyond our own. The light is "unresolved," meaning that individual objects creating the light -- in particular, the active supermassive black holes -- cannot be distinguished. The image on the RIGHT shows a simulated view of what NuSTAR will see at comparable wavelengths. NuSTAR will be able to identify individual black holes making up the diffuse X-ray glow, also called the X-ray background. The observatory will have 100 times better sensitivity than its predecessors, and 10 times sharper resolution. It will probe deeper into the mysterious regions surrounding black holes, and will discover never-before-seen black holes enshrouded in dust. Credit: ESA/NASA/JPL-Caltech

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