NuSTAR is in orbit
Launched on 13 June 2012 with the help of a Pegasus rocket released from an airplane, NASA’s NuSTAR observatory is to enable high-energy X-ray sources such as black holes or clouds of gas spewed out by supernovae to be studied.
|NuSTAR in orbit (illustration).
As we all know, the eye only sees the surface of things. And we should add that our eyes cannot see the entire electromagnetic spectrum. So beyond visible light (the colours of the rainbow, to make things simple), we are, for example, unable to see X-rays or infrared light and in order to do so we have to use instruments that are sensitive to these rays.
And this will be the role of NuSTAR (Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope ARray), a space observatory dedicated to X-rays and, even more particularly, to high-energy X-rays. It will, for instance, look at the Universe in an energy field between 5 and 80 keV (kilo-electron volt). In comparison, the European XMM-Newton and the American Chandra do not respectively go beyond 12 and 10 keV, but they are more precise.
NuSTAR is therefore to provide astronomers with unprecedented information relating to black holes, notably of the gigantic variety that reign in the heart of galaxies. It is also hoped that it will provide an explanation as to how complex molecules form in the gas clouds spewed out when stars violently explode (supernovae).
|The NuSTAR satellite undergoing preparations on the ground prior to its launch on 13 June 2012.
NuSTAR ought to have been a little more than 10 m long in order to be able to focus on X-rays at such high energies as this is the distance needed between its very special lens and its detectors. But such a size would have made it a spaceship that was much too expensive to launch! However, the designers of this orbiting observatory then had the idea of “folding” it. So once in space, NuSTAR is to deploy a long mast which will provide the required distance (see diagram below).
NuSTAR was placed in orbit by means of a Pegasus, an economical launch vehicle belonging to the American company Orbital which consists of a rocket taken to an altitude of 12 km underneath a former L-1011 airliner. Once released, the Pegasus rocket is fired and it completes its ascension to orbit. This, as far as the NuSTAR is concerned, is at an altitude of 550 km. For this mission, the airplane took off from the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean on 13 June. The video below gives a summary of the launch operations.
NuSTAR now has to be put in its work configuration so that it can begin its observations. The first scientific data is expected at the end of June.
Published on 15 June 2012