NuSTAR rises to guide astrophysics research into hard X-ray regime

Jun 15, 2012 by Lori Ann White
An illustration of NuSTAR in orbit. NuSTAR has a 33-foot mast that deploys after launch to separate the optics modules (right) from the detectors in the focal plane (left). The spacecraft, which controls where NuSTAR points, and the solar panels are also shown at left. Image by NASA/Caltech

( -- NASA's newest telescope headed for orbit yesterday, its rocket igniting in the night skies south of Kwajalein Atoll after being dropped from the underbelly of a Lockheed L-1011 plane.

The Nuclear Spectroscopic (NuSTAR) is a Small Explorer class , developed by a team of scientists and engineers under the leadership of Prof. Fiona Harrison from the California Institute of Technology. It will use an innovative system of nested X-ray mirrors to open a new window onto the cosmos: the high-energy X-ray window.

This is the same range of X-ray wavelengths used to image broken bones and scan luggage. NuSTAR's mirrors will collect high-energy X-ray photons emitted by cosmic sources, focusing the light into images 10 times sharper and 100 times more sensitive than any previous high-energy X-ray telescope.

Several members of the joint SLAC/Stanford Kavli Institute for and Cosmology are on the NuSTAR science team and are looking forward to their first view through the hard X-ray window. "Every time there is a new instrument with significantly better sensitivity than any previous instrument, significant discoveries are bound to follow," said SLAC Greg Madejski, who is leading the KIPAC contingent. He was also involved in defining the science that NuSTAR would do, even before the telescope was built.

"The most important study will involve the cosmic X-ray background – understanding the individual phenomena that contribute to it," Madejski said. Probable contributors that NuSTAR is especially suited to view are the innermost regions of black hole event horizons, where particles being slurped up by black holes are boosted to near-light speeds, like too many race cars jammed onto a too-small track, with cosmic fireworks as the result.

NuSTAR will team with other telescopes to study the high-energy universe. For example, it will use its X-ray eye to examine jets of particles blasting out of active galactic nuclei that have already been pinpointed by the Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope. The gamma rays captured by Fermi don't provide enough information to fully explain what powers these jets; according to Madejski, the hope is that NuSTAR will be able to measure the jets' contents and reveal some of the high-energy processes that accelerate the contents to such great speeds.

NuSTAR can convert high-energy X-ray photons into sharp images because of its innovative telescope design, explained SLAC engineering physicist Jason Koglin, who currently helps users of the Linac Coherent Light Source get the information they need from the LCLS X-rays. Before he did that, he was at Columbia University working with the team that developed NuSTAR's mirrors.

"The whole telescope is basically a set of nested reflective mirrors," which are designed to deflect light onto the special solid-state detector, said Koglin. Each of its two identical optics modules is made of 133 layers of concentric, cone-shaped shells, each shell built of between 12 and 24 individual segments, all molded from ultra-thin glass similar to what's found in laptop screens and glazed with hundreds of layers of reflective coatings.

Even with such advanced mirrors, the two optics modules can deflect X-rays only slightly. A week after NuSTAR's launch, a special light-weight gantry will unfurl, providing the 33 feet needed between the modules and the rest of the telescope to ensure that X-rays deflected by the mirrors converge at the right spot.

Koglin is waiting along with the KIPAC scientists to see what data the NuSTAR mirrors deliver. "Multi-band studies are so important," he said – in other words, studying the same phenomenon in NuSTAR's hard X-rays and Fermi's gamma rays, or in the less energetic X-rays detected by the Chandra X-ray . "It's like looking at different colors in a very broad spectrum,” he said. “If one of the colors isn't there, you can't even tell you're missing something."

With , the cosmic rainbow will be one step closer to complete. 

For more information about the mission, see the NuSTAR website.

Explore further: Pushy neighbors force stellar twins to diverge

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

NASA preparing to launch NuSTAR, its newest X-ray eyes

May 30, 2012

( -- NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, is being prepared for the final journey to its launch pad on Kwajalein Atoll in the central Pacific Ocean. The mission will study everything ...

NASA's NuSTAR ships to Vandenberg for March 14 launch

Jan 25, 2012

( -- NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, shipped to Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., on Tuesday, to be mated to its Pegasus launch vehicle. The observatory will detect X-rays ...

NuSTAR mated to its rocket

Feb 20, 2012

( -- NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) is being mated, or attached, to its Pegasus XL rocket today at Vandenberg Air Force Base in central California.

Recommended for you

Astronomers: 'Tilt-a-worlds' could harbor life

13 hours ago

A fluctuating tilt in a planet's orbit does not preclude the possibility of life, according to new research by astronomers at the University of Washington, Utah's Weber State University and NASA. In fact, ...

Pushy neighbors force stellar twins to diverge

20 hours ago

( —Much like an environment influences people, so too do cosmic communities affect even giant dazzling stars: Peering deep into the Milky Way galaxy's center from a high-flying observatory, Cornell ...

Image: Multiple protostars within IRAS 20324+4057

Apr 14, 2014

( —A bright blue tadpole appears to swim through the inky blackness of space. Known as IRAS 20324+4057 but dubbed "the Tadpole", this clump of gas and dust has given birth to a bright protostar, ...

Research group to study interstellar molecules

Apr 11, 2014

From April 2014, a new group will study interstellar molecules and use them to explore the entire star and planet formation process at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics. Newly appointed ...

Astronomers suggest more accurate star formation rates

Apr 10, 2014

( —Astronomers have found a new way of predicting the rate at which a molecular cloud—a stellar nursery—will form new stars. Using a novel technique to reconstruct a cloud's 3-D structure, ...

User comments : 0

More news stories

Astronomers: 'Tilt-a-worlds' could harbor life

A fluctuating tilt in a planet's orbit does not preclude the possibility of life, according to new research by astronomers at the University of Washington, Utah's Weber State University and NASA. In fact, ...

NASA Cassini images may reveal birth of a Saturn moon

( —NASA's Cassini spacecraft has documented the formation of a small icy object within the rings of Saturn that may be a new moon, and may also provide clues to the formation of the planet's known ...

Vegetables on Mars within ten years?

The soil on Mars may be suitable for cultivating food crops – this is the prognosis of a study by plant ecologist Wieger Wamelink of Wageningen UR. This would prove highly practical if we ever decide to ...

Patent talk: Google sharpens contact lens vision

( —A report from Patent Bolt brings us one step closer to what Google may have in mind in developing smart contact lenses. According to the discussion Google is interested in the concept of contact ...

Wireless industry makes anti-theft commitment

A trade group for wireless providers said Tuesday that the biggest mobile device manufacturers and carriers will soon put anti-theft tools on the gadgets to try to deter rampant smartphone theft.