Video: NASA’s NuSTAR launches

Following a successful launch, NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) has begun its mission to discover secrets of buried black holes and other exotic objects.

According to NASA astrophysics division director Paul Hertz, NuSTAR will “open a new window on the universe,” while providing complementary data to other missions, including Fermi, Chandra, Hubble and Spitzer.

Indeed, NuSTAR is slated to use a unique set of eyes to see the highest energy X-ray light from the cosmos. The observatory can peer through gas and dust to reveal black holes lurking in our Milky Way galaxy, as well as those hidden in the hearts of faraway galaxies.

The observatory began its journey aboard a L-1011 “Stargazer” aircraft, operated by Orbital Sciences Corporation, Dulles, Va. NuSTAR was perched atop Orbital’s Pegasus XL rocket, both of which were strapped to the belly of the Stargazer plane. The plane left Kwajalein Atoll in the central Pacific Ocean one hour before launch. At 9:00:35 a.m. PDT (12:00:35 p.m. EDT), the rocket dropped, free-falling for five seconds before firing its first-stage motor.

About 13 minutes after the rocket dropped, NuSTAR separated from the rocket, reaching its final low Earth orbit. The first signal from the spacecraft was received at 9:14 a.m. PDT (12:14 p.m. EDT) via NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System.

“NuSTAR spread its solar panels to charge the spacecraft battery and then reported back to Earth of its good health,” said Yunjin Kim, the mission’s project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “We are checking out the spacecraft now and are excited to tune into the high-energy X-ray sky.”

The mission’s unique telescope design includes a 33-foot (10-meter) mast, which was folded up in a small canister during launch. In approximately seven days, engineers will command the mast to extend, enabling the telescope to focus properly. About 23 days later, science operations are scheduled to begin.

As noted above, The 772-pound NuSTAR will spend at least two years observing high-energy X-rays more closely, in higher resolution, than any space telescope before it. On the electromagnetic spectrum, high-energy X-rays are beyond the scope of visible light and are challenging to detect. However, 

NuSTAR’s advanced design uses two sets of 133 thin, nested shells of mirrors to capture the X-rays as they bounce off the reflecting surfaces at glancing angles. The expected result? An orbiting observatory that enables astronomers to see the universe in an additional band of light, advancing our understanding of how galaxies form and evolve.

In addition to black holes and their powerful jets, NuSTAR will study a host of high-energy objects in our universe, including the remains of exploded stars; compact, dead stars; and clusters of galaxies. The mission’s observations, in coordination with other telescopes such as NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory which detects lower-energy X-rays, will help solve fundamental cosmic mysteries. NuSTAR is also slated to study our sun’s fiery atmosphere, looking for clues as to how it is heated.