article image

NuSTAR X-ray telescope launches

Charles Black, Founder and CEO of Sen
Jun 14, 2012, 7:00 UTC

Sen—NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array "NuSTAR", a high energy X-ray telescope that will study black holes, map supernova explosions and study extreme active galaxies, was launched into orbit June 13.

NuSTAR has been designed and built for NASA by Orbital Sciences Corporation ("Orbital") which also provided the launch vehicle - a Pegasus rocket. The rocket encasing the NuSTAR satellite was lifted to its launch height by an Orbital "Stargazer" L-1011 aircraft which carried the Pegasus rocket underneath the aircraft until the carrier reached the release altitude. At approximately 39,000 feet the Pegasus rocket was released and after a few seconds of free fall, ignited its first stage rocket motor.

During its ride to space, the rocket's fairing opened like a clamshell, exposing NuSTAR before it was carried to its final orbit around Earth.

NuSTAR was separated from the rocket's third stage a few minutes later and was deployed in a low-Earth equatorial orbit at an altitude of approximately 400 miles above Earth's surface.

The launch took place from Kwajalein Atoll in the central Pacific Ocean.

Ron Grabe, Orbital's Executive Vice President and General Manager of its launch systems, said “We are very pleased to support NASA and JPL on this important scientific project. The NuSTAR program is another ‘dual’ mission for our launch vehicle and satellite engineering teams, building on our history of supporting successful NASA scientific programs such as AIM, GALEX, SORCE, ACRIMSAT and IBEX with our launch vehicles and satellite platforms.”

NuSTAR is a high energy X-ray space telescope that will study black holes, map supernova explosions and study the most extreme active galaxies. NuSTAR x-ray vision will will be able to see through the gas and dust of galaxies to see black holes lurking in the Milky Way and other galaxies.

The NuSTAR satellite project, which has an two year primary mission phase, is led by Dr Fiona Harrison, the mission's Principal Investigator from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), who commented "NuSTAR will help us find the most elusive and most energetic black holes, to help us understand the structure of the universe"

It has taken a long time to build NuSTAR because a mirror on an X-ray telescope is much more complicated than a mirror that reflects light in the visible region, as the powerful X-rays must only graze the curved mirror.

A total of 9,000 mirror segments had to be manufactured. Each segment is only 200 microns thick, which makes them 100 times thinner than Chandra’s heavy mirrors. 

By keeping the telescope lightweight, an easier and more cost efficient launch aboard the Orbital Pegasus rocket has been made possible.

NuSTAR is a "Small Explorer" mission led by the California Institute of Technology and managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). 

NuSTAR was designed and built by Orbital Sciences Corporation - a US space company looking to follow SpaceX later this year when it hopes to demonstrate its ability to put a cargo ship into orbit followed by a demonstration mission to the space station.

NuSTAR's instrument was built by a consortium including the Californian Institute of Technology (Caltech), NASA JPL, the University of California, Berkeley, Columbia University, New York; NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, the Danish Technical University in Denmark, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and ATK Aerospace Systems.

NuSTAR will be operated by UC Berkeley, with the Italian Space Agency providing its equatorial ground station located at Malindi, Kenya.