NASA launches X-ray telescope into orbit
LOS ANGELES — NASA on Wednesday launched its newest X-ray space telescope on a mission to shine a light on black holes and other hard-to-see objects lurking in the Milky Way and other galaxies.
Mission controllers clapped after receiving a signal from the telescope that it had reached orbit 350 miles above the Earth.
“It’s a terrific day,” assistant launch director Tim Dunn said.
NASA decided to air-launch the $170 million mission, instead of rocketing off from a launchpad, because it was cheaper. The telescope was boosted into orbit by a Pegasus rocket released from a carrier aircraft that took off from the remote Kwajalein Atoll, a horseshoe-shaped Pacific island halfway between Hawaii and Australia.
After free-falling for several seconds, the rocket ignited its engines and climbed to space. Minutes later, the telescope separated from the rocket and unfurled its solar panels as it circled above the Earth.
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 centers 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. By zeroing in on never-before-seen parts of the universe, 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. 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,” chief scientist Fiona Harrison of the California Institute of Technology said this week.
NuStar also will hunt for the remains of ancient supernovae, stars that exploded in past centuries. If it’s lucky, it will 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.
Scientists expect sharp images from NuStar, which is many times more sensitive than previous space telescopes that have looked in this part of the electromagnetic spectrum.
After a week in orbit, NuStar will unwrap its 33-foot mast laden with sensors. Observations will begin in about a month.