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NASA and UC Berkeley team up to research black holes

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JUNE 19, 2012

A new NASA telescope, headed by the UC Berkeley Space Sciences Laboratory, will reach orbit on Wednesday and eventually help researchers study the growth of galaxies.

The Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescopic Array, referred to as NuSTAR, will seek out black holes in other Milky Way Galaxy as well as our own by picking up on high energy X-rays emitted from the edge of these dark masses of gravity.

“NuSTAR will help us to understand how galaxies and black holes grow and influence each other as the universe evolves,” said Fiona Harrison, a professor of physics and astronomy at the California Institute of Technology and leader of the mission. “We know black holes influence galaxy growth, and NuSTAR will make great strides in our understanding of this process.”

Approximately 15 years in the making, NuSTAR is not the first attempt at an instrument designed to detect X-rays, although it has the potential to be the most successful. William Craig, instrument manager and instrument systems engineer for NuSTAR at the Space Sciences Lab at UC Berkeley, has high hopes for the telescope, which was launched last Wednesday.

“The NuSTAR telescope is an exciting technological breakthrough,” Craig said. “The optics modules, (which) act as the lens for the telescope, are the first to allow true focusing in the high energy X-ray range and allow us to look more than a hundred times deeper than previous attempts to explore this region of the electromagnetic spectrum.”

According to a NASA press release, the observatory will be able to see through gas and dust, unlike most telescopes, and reveal black holes lurking in the Milky Way, as well as those hidden deep inside the cores of surrounding galaxies.

The telescope features 133 individual tilted mirrors opposite from digital detectors similar to those used in cell phone cameras that will convert the X-rays to images. The extendable mast in between these components is one of the “very impressive engineering accomplishments that allowed (the NuSTAR team) to put a 33-foot focal length telescope on the smaller, less expensive rocket that is available for this smaller class of NASA science missions,” according to Craig.

About three weeks after NuSTAR is in orbit, the observatory will begin its work of locating black holes and studying the remnants of exploded stars, in addition to looking at our sun’s atmosphere for clues as to how it is heated.

“NuSTAR will see black holes as points of X-ray light both in our own galaxy, and at the hearts of other galaxies,” Harrison said. “If NuSTAR sees a point of high energy X-ray light in the center of a galaxy it is certainly a massive black hole — millions to billions of times the mass of our sun.”

Although the majority of its funding is provided by NASA, the development of NuSTAR has been the result of a large effort made by many different entities. The NuSTAR mission has involved international partners including the Italian Space Agency, which is providing the ground station for the mission, the Technical University of Denmark, who contributed to the X-ray optics and international members of the science team who are funded independently by other governments.

As of now, no problems have arisen with the mission, Harrison said.

“After a successful launch into a very good orbit, we have been commissioning the spacecraft and are proceeding as planned.  The instrument commissioning process has begun and everything is working nominally,” Craig said. “The team is very much looking forward to getting the telescope mast extended on Thursday of this week and moving on to our first target — a black hole in our galaxy known as Cygnus X-1.”

Contact Mateo Garcia at 


JUNE 20, 2012

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