NASA is going hunting for black holes, and they're using a new low Earth orbit telescope to do it. It's called NuSTAR (short for Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array), and it's scheduled to launch today beginning at 11:30 EDT. Check out the live webcast after the jump.
NuSTAR is the first high energy X-ray telescope ever developed that's actually capable of focusing, a feature NASA researchers say will allow it to image black holes, supernovae, and other high-energy cosmic entities at ten times the clarity of any other telescope in existence.
Astronomers suspect that as many as two thirds of the Universe's black holes may currently be hidden from view. That's because while black holes emit light across the entire electromagnetic spectrum, current instruments like the Hubble Space Telescope are best suited for observing infrared, visible, and ultraviolet light — all forms of electromagnetic radiation with relatively long wavelengths and lower energy.
By comparison, NASA's NuSTAR is designed to make observations at shorter wavelengths and higher energy; and when it comes to high energy cosmic entities, few things can compete with black holes and supernovae.
"It's a very exciting mission," said Roger Blandford, director of Stanford's Kavli Institute of Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology, and a member of the NuSTAR science team. "It opens up a new window on the universe."
The bus-sized orbiting telescope will be launched in a matter of hours, when it is released from the underbelly of a plane flying at 39,000 feet, then propelled into low Earth orbit by a Pegasus XL rocket (plane assisted launches are typically cheaper than lifting off from the ground). If all goes according to plan, the Agency says it expects the next few days to play out as follows:
The Stargazer carrier aircraft, with the Pegasus launch vehicle and NuSTAR spacecraft strapped to its belly, will take off from Kwajalein's Bucholz Auxiliary Airfield an hour before launch, and climb to an altitude of about 39,000 feet (11,900 meters). This should occur around 7:30 a.m. PDT (10:30 a.m. EDT).
The carrier aircraft will release the Pegasus rocket at 8:30 a.m. PDT (11:30 a.m. EDT). The rocket will free-fall for about five seconds before igniting.
At about 8:30 a.m. PDT (11:30 a.m. EDT), the rocket carrying NuSTAR will ignite. Its first-stage motor will burn for 70 seconds and then drop away. The second-stage motor will burn for about a minute-and-a-half.
While the second stage is burning, pyrotechnic devices will be fired to release the nose cone, or fairing, that encapsulates the observatory. NuSTAR will be exposed to space for the first time. This event is scheduled to occur around 8:33 a.m. PDT (11:33 a.m. EDT).
At about 8:43 a.m. PDT (11:43 a.m. EDT), 13 minutes after the initial release from the Stargazer, NuSTAR will separate from the Pegasus rocket's third stage. At this point, NuSTAR will be in its final orbit — a low-Earth equatorial orbit at an altitude of approximately 340 miles (600 kilometers) and an inclination of six degrees.
When NuSTAR separates from the Pegasus, the satellite's system that controls its orientation in space, or "attitude," will begin to stabilize it, and the spacecraft solar arrays will be deployed. Around this time, its first signal will be received on the ground via NASA's Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System. Over the following week, NuSTAR personnel will perform a series of checkouts to ensure that all spacecraft subsystems are operating nominally.
Roughly one week after launch, engineers will command NuSTAR to deploy its lengthy 33-foot (10-meter) boom, allowing the telescope to focus X-ray light into crisp images. Unlike visible-light telescopes, X-ray telescopes require a long distance between the mirrors and detectors to focus the light. It's a bit like wearing glasses a few feet away from your face.
Science operations are expected to begin about 30 days after launch.
You can watch the launch live via the USTREAM applet below: