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Schematic engineering drawing of the Black Hole Coded Aperture Telescope
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Penn State astrophysicist to lead $5.8 million NASA CubeSat mission

14 September 2021

Abe Falcone, research professor in astronomy and astrophysics, will lead a team of Penn State astronomers in the development, launch, and science mission of the Black Hole Coded Aperture Telescope (BlackCAT), an X-ray telescope designed for the observation of cosmic objects that produce bright X-ray emission. After an initial one-year concept study, the project was chosen by NASA’s Astrophysics Research and Analysis (ARPA) program to be fully funded for $5.8 million over five years.

Image
Schematic engineering drawing of the Black Hole Coded Aperture Telescope
Schematic engineering drawing of the Black Hole
Coded Aperture Telescope (BlackCAT). BlackCAT
is an X-ray telescope on a CubeSat platform that will
be built and operated at Penn State. It was chosen
by NASA’s Astrophysics Research and Analysis
(ARPA) program to be fully funded for $5.8 million
over five years. Credit: Falcone lab, Penn State

BlackCAT is a small, but wide field-of-view X-ray space telescope on a 30cm x 20cm x 10cm CubeSat platform—a small class of research spacecraft. It is optimized for the detection of X-ray emission from rare and bright gamma-ray bursts from the early universe, nearby short gamma-ray bursts that are likely to accompany gravitational-waves, and X-ray flares from active galaxies with supermassive black holes. It will be used to search for transient objects such as early universe stars collapsing to form black holes and will enable studies of early universe star formation.

The BlackCAT instrument will be built at Penn State, enabling students and young researchers to have hands-on space-flight hardware experience. The expected launch date is March 2024.

The NASA APRA program accepts up to one astrophysics CubeSat mission per year, which then must spend an initial concept study year to prove the feasibility of cost and schedule. BlackCAT began its concept study phase on March 1, 2020 and was approved for full funding on March 1, 2021.

Over the next five years the team at Penn State will build the instrument, contract with spacecraft and launch providers, integrate the instrument and spacecraft, launch, and then execute a science and operations phase.  

In addition to Falcone, the BlackCAT team includes Tyler Anderson, David Burrows, Zachary Catlin, Derek Fox, Daniel LaRocca, Mitchell Wages, graduate students Logan Baker and Joseph Colosimo, and undergraduate students Cole Armstrong, Seth Culbertson, Fredric Hancock, Gooderham McCormick, and Mitchell Range at Penn State; and David Palmer at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.