It is called NuStar, for “Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array,” and NASA will be launching this giant thing that looks like a dumpster on March 14th.
NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, mission is seen here being lowered into its shipping container at Orbital Sciences Corporation in Dulles, Va. The spacecraft is headed to Vandenberg Air Force Base in Central California, where it will be mated to its rocket. It is scheduled to launch from Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands on March 14. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Orbital
When you look at the sky with your beautifully evolved Primate Eye (our eyes are better than those of many other mammals at seeing and interpreting a wide spectrum of light) you are actually missing most of what is out there. In order to really see what is out there, a machine that detects ranges of the light spectrum that are invisible to humans captures that information. This is then transformed into visible light (“enhanced” is the term often used) so we can see it, or otherwise processed for data analysis.
NuSTAR will detect X-rays from the sun, as well as from things outside our galaxy, and things in between. In particular, the detector will be able to read high-energy X-rays, and will be able to produce very detailed images in that range.
NuSTAR uses 133 concentric shells of mirrors which will focus X-rays over a 10 meter focusing distance.
During its two-year primary mission, NuSTAR will map the celestial sky in X-rays, surveying black holes, mapping supernova remnants, and studying particle jets travelling away from black holes near the speed of light.
NuSTAR also will probe the sun, looking for microflares theorized to be on the surface that could explain how the sun’s million-degree corona, or atmosphere, is heated. It will even test a theory of dark matter, the mysterious substance making up about one-quarter of our universe, by searching the sun for evidence of a hypothesized dark matter particle.
“NuSTAR will provide an unprecedented capability to discover and study some of the most exotic objects in the universe, from the corpses of exploded stars in the Milky Way to supermassive black holes residing in the hearts of distant galaxies,” said Lou Kaluzienski, NuSTAR program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington.
The machine will be flown under the belly of an L-1011 aircraft (you’ve likely flown on one or two of those) attached to a Pegaus Launch Vehicle. This will then be dropped from the aircraft over the ocean, and the Pegaus will bring NuSTAR into orbit.
The three-stage Pegasus is used by commercial, government and international customers to deploy small satellites weighing up to 1,000 pounds into low-Earth orbit. Pegasus is carried aloft by our “Stargazer” L-1011 aircraft to approximately 40,000 feet over open ocean, where it is released and then free-falls in a horizontal position for five seconds before igniting its first stage rocket motor. With the aerodynamic lift generated by its unique delta-shaped wing, Pegasus typically delivers satellites into orbit in a little over 10 minutes.