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Forum:Satellites - Robotic Probes
Topic:Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuStar)
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NuSTAR will use a unique set of eyes to see the highest energy X-ray light from the cosmos. The observatory can see 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.

"NuSTAR will help us find the most elusive and most energetic black holes, to help us understand the structure of the universe," said Fiona Harrison, the mission's principal investigator at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

The observatory began its journey aboard the 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 12:00:35 p.m. EDT (9:00:35 a.m. PDT), 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 12:14 p.m. EDT (9:14 a.m. PDT) through 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 about 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.

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 also will study our sun's fiery atmosphere, looking for clues as to how it is heated.

SpaceAholicNASA release
NASA's NuSTAR Helps Solve Riddle of Black Hole Spin

Two X-ray space observatories, NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) and the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton, have teamed up to measure definitively, for the first time, the spin rate of a black hole with a mass 2 million times that of our sun.

The supermassive black hole lies at the dust and gas-filled heart of a galaxy called NGC 1365, and it is spinning almost as fast as Einstein's theory of gravity will allow. The findings, which appear in a new study in the journal Nature, resolve a long-standing debate about similar measurements in other black holes and will lead to a better understanding of how black holes and galaxies evolve.

"This is hugely important to the field of black hole science," said Lou Kaluzienski, a NuSTAR program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

The observations also are a powerful test of Einstein's theory of general relativity, which says gravity can bend space-time, the fabric that shapes our universe, and the light that travels through it.

"We can trace matter as it swirls into a black hole using X-rays emitted from regions very close to the black hole," said the coauthor of a new study and NuSTAR principal investigator Fiona Harrison of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. "The radiation we see is warped and distorted by the motions of particles and the black hole's incredibly strong gravity."

NuSTAR, an Explorer-class mission launched in June 2012, is designed to detect the highest-energy X-ray light in great detail. It complements telescopes that observe lower-energy X-ray light, such as XMM-Newton and NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory. Scientists use these and other telescopes to estimate the rates at which black holes spin.

Until now, these measurements were not certain because clouds of gas could have been obscuring the black holes and confusing the results. With help from XMM-Newton, NuSTAR was able to see a broader range of X-ray energies and penetrate deeper into the region around the black hole. The new data demonstrate that X-rays are not being warped by the clouds but by the tremendous gravity of the black hole. This proves that spin rates of supermassive black holes can be determined conclusively.

"If I could have added one instrument to XMM-Newton, it would have been a telescope like NuSTAR," said Norbert Schartel, XMM-Newton Project Scientist at the European Space Astronomy Center in Madrid. "The high-energy X-rays provided an essential missing puzzle piece for solving this problem."

Measuring the spin of a supermassive black hole is fundamental to understanding its past history and that of its host galaxy.
"These monsters, with masses from millions to billions of times that of the sun, are formed as small seeds in the early universe and grow by swallowing stars and gas in their host galaxies, merging with other giant black holes when galaxies collide, or both," said the study's lead author, Guido Risaliti of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., and the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics.

Supermassive black holes are surrounded by pancake-like accretion disks, formed as their gravity pulls matter inward. Einstein's theory predicts the faster a black hole spins, the closer the accretion disk lies to the black hole. The closer the accretion disk is, the more gravity from the black hole will warp X-ray light streaming off the disk.

Astronomers look for these warping effects by analyzing X-ray light emitted by iron circulating in the accretion disk. In the new study, they used both XMM-Newton and NuSTAR to simultaneously observe the black hole in NGC 1365. While XMM-Newton revealed that light from the iron was being warped, NuSTAR proved that this distortion was coming from the gravity of the black hole and not gas clouds in the vicinity. NuSTAR's higher-energy X-ray data showed that the iron was so close to the black hole that its gravity must be causing the warping effects.

With the possibility of obscuring clouds ruled out, scientists can now use the distortions in the iron signature to measure the black hole's spin rate. The findings apply to several other black holes as well, removing the uncertainty in the previously measured spin rates.

Robert PearlmanNASA release
NASA's NuSTAR Telescope Discovers Shockingly Bright Dead Star

Astronomers have found a pulsating, dead star beaming with the energy of about 10 million suns. This is the brightest pulsar – a dense stellar remnant left over from a supernova explosion – ever recorded. The discovery was made with NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR.

"You might think of this pulsar as the 'Mighty Mouse' of stellar remnants," said Fiona Harrison, the NuSTAR principal investigator at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California. "It has all the power of a black hole, but with much less mass."

Above: A rare and mighty pulsar (pink) can be seen at the center of the galaxy Messier 82 in this new multi-wavelength portrait. NASA's NuSTAR mission discovered the "pulse" of the pulsar — a type of dead star — using is high-energy X-ray vision. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The discovery appears in a new report in the Thursday Oct. 9 issue of the journal Nature.

The surprising find is helping astronomers better understand mysterious sources of blinding X-rays, called ultraluminous X-ray sources (ULXs). Until now, all ULXs were thought to be black holes. The new data from NuSTAR show at least one ULX, about 12 million light-years away in the galaxy Messier 82 (M82), is actually a pulsar.

"The pulsar appears to be eating the equivalent of a black hole diet," said Harrison. "This result will help us understand how black holes gorge and grow so quickly, which is an important event in the formation of galaxies and structures in the universe."

ULXs are generally thought to be black holes feeding off companion stars -- a process called accretion. They also are suspected to be the long-sought after "medium-size" black holes – missing links between smaller, stellar-size black holes and the gargantuan ones that dominate the hearts of most galaxies. But research into the true nature of ULXs continues toward more definitive answers.

NuSTAR did not initially set out to study the two ULXs in M82. Astronomers had been observing a recent supernova in the galaxy when they serendipitously noticed pulses of bright X-rays coming from the ULX known as M82 X-2. Black holes do not pulse, but pulsars do.

Pulsars belong to a class of stars called neutron stars. Like black holes, neutron stars are the burnt-out cores of exploded stars, but puny in mass by comparison. Pulsars send out beams of radiation ranging from radio waves to ultra-high-energy gamma rays. As the star spins, these beams intercept Earth like lighthouse beacons, producing a pulsed signal.

"We took it for granted that the powerful ULXs must be massive black holes," said lead study author Matteo Bachetti, of the University of Toulouse in France. "When we first saw the pulsations in the data, we thought they must be from another source."

NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and Swift satellite also have monitored M82 to study the same supernova, and confirmed the intense X-rays of M82 X-2 were coming from a pulsar.

"Having a diverse array of telescopes in space means that they can help each other out," said Paul Hertz, director of NASA's astrophysics division in Washington. "When one telescope makes a discovery, others with complementary capabilities can be called in to investigate it at different wavelengths."

The key to NuSTAR's discovery was its sensitivity to high-energy X-rays, as well as its ability to precisely measure the timing of the signals, which allowed astronomers to measure a pulse rate of 1.37 seconds. They also measured its energy output at the equivalent of 10 million suns, or 10 times more than that observed from other X-ray pulsars. This is a big punch for something about the mass of our sun and the size of Pasadena.

How is this puny, dead star radiating so fiercely? Astronomers are not sure, but they say it is likely due to a lavish feast of the cosmic kind. As is the case with black holes, the gravity of a neutron star can pull matter off companion stars. As the matter is dragged onto the neutron star, it heats up and glows with X-rays. If the pulsar is indeed feeding off surrounding matter, it is doing so at such an extreme rate to have theorists scratching their heads.

Astronomers are planning follow-up observations with NASA's NuSTAR, Swift and Chandra spacecraft to find an explanation for the pulsar's bizarre behavior. The NuSTAR team also will look at more ULXs, meaning they could turn up more pulsars. At this point, it is not clear whether M82 X-2 is an oddball or if more ULXs beat with the pulse of dead stars. NuSTAR, a relatively small telescope, has thrown a big loop into the mystery of black holes.

"In the news recently, we have seen that another source of unusually bright X-rays in the M82 galaxy seems to be a medium-sized black hole," said astronomer Jeanette Gladstone of the University of Alberta, Canada, who is not affiliated with the study. "Now, we find that the second source of bright X-rays in M82 isn't a black hole at all. This is going to challenge theorists and pave the way for a new understanding of the diversity of these fascinating objects."

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