A once-canceled space telescope is set to launch into Earth orbit, where it will search for undiscovered black holes in the Milky Way and at the hearts of other galaxies.
The Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array will hunt for black holes that have been obscured by the dust and gas floating through space and measure how fast some of them are spinning. NuSTAR will also examine with fresh eyes the remnants of exploded stars known as supernovae.
"It's a very exciting mission," said Roger Blandford, director of the Kavli Institute of Particle Astrophysics and Cosmology at Stanford University and a member of the NuSTAR science team. "It opens up a new window on the universe."
Black holes, supernovae and other cosmic sources can give off light across the whole electromagnetic spectrum, from low-energy infrared waves to high-energy gamma radiation. But much of that light is invisible even to the Hubble Space Telescope and the ChandraX-rayObservatory, which are focused on the infrared, visible, ultraviolet and low-energyX-rayportions of the spectrum.
In addition, much of the lower-energy light gets absorbed by gas and dust floating through space, essentially blocking these objects from view.
NuSTAR will capture high-energy X-rays emanating from these cosmic bodies. But it's hard for instruments to detect the rays directly — they tend to go straight through. These are, after all, the same kind of X-rays dentists use to penetrate your skin and take images of your teeth, explained Caltech astrophysicist Fiona Harrison, the mission's principal investigator.