NASA is poised to launch a sophisticated orbiting telescope that uses high-energy X-ray vision to hunt for black holes in the universe Wednesday.
The Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) will first be carried into the skies by a jet which will deploy a rocket that sends the satellite into space, NASA said.
The project aims to study energetic phenomena such as black holes and the explosions of massive stars.
Orbital Sciences Corporation designed and manufactured the telescope and will send it into orbit from its own Pegasus air-launched rocket, which is attached to the underside of the company's L-1011 Stargazer aircraft.
The jet will take off from Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands about an hour before the launch itself at 11:30am ET. Orbital said it would be the 41st Pegasus mission since its introduction in 1990.
"NuSTAR will open a whole new window on the universe," said Fiona Harrison, who is a professor at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and is the principal investigator on NuSTAR.
It will be the "first telescope to focus high energy X-rays. As such it will make images that are 10 times crisper and 100 times more sensitive than any telescope that has operated in this region of the spectrum."
With 133 nested mirrors in each of two optical units, the telescope also uses state-of-the-art detectors and a long mast that connects the optical units to the detectors and allows enough distance for a sharp focus.
The 33-foot (10m) mast will launch in a folded-up position but will extend about a week after launch, bringing it to about the length of a school bus.
"It used to be thought that black holes were rare and exotic -- that was just 20 years ago," Harrison told reporters.
"Today we know that every massive galaxy, like our Milky Way, has a massive black hole at its heart."
The new observatory aims to give a better view of the workings of a black hole, since the dust and gas that gets sucked into the gravity of a black hole becomes quite hot from speed and friction created as it circulates around the edge.
Paul Hertz, NASA's Astrophysics Division director, described NuSTAR as "a small space telescope that will provide world-class science in an important but relatively unexplored band of the electromagnetic spectrum."
Copyright 2012 AFP. All rights reserved.
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