NASA is set to send a new space instrument into orbit this week, and Penn State University researchers are on the team that will share time on the telescope.
There are several space telescopes already in orbit around the Earth. The Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, is the first designed to produce super-sharp and finely sensitive images of the radiation produced by the remnants of exploding stars, or massive black holes.
“The reason why that’s useful, or exciting, is because these X-rays are very penetrating. For the same reason that they use them to scan your luggage, we can also use them to study black holes out in the distant universe that are surrounded by lots of obscuring material — gas and dust,” said astrophycist Niel Brandt, a Penn State professor of astronomy.
NuSTAR is designed to give scientists clear images of objects that are millions of light years away. A massive black hole, for example, is a collapsed object that’s been squeezed down to a tiny size. Yet, its huge mass creates regions of space that gobble any material that veers close. Some black holes also kick up high-powered winds. Brandt and other scientists hope to learn more about them.
“We’ll be able to teach people about these things with some degree of reliability. It’s one of these things, where it doesn’t defend our nation, but it makes our nation worth defending,” he said.
The Penn State researchers are scheduled to get their turn on NuSTAR in August — if all goes well during Wednesday’s launch.
Researchers at the California Institute of Technology led and designed the NuSTAR project. They built just one NuSTAR so if it failed, that would be the end of the project for now.
“Taking one of these things up in an airplane and firing it off in a rocket, when you’ve spent 20 years of your life and couple million hundred dollars in taxpayer money on the thing, there’s a very good chance for success but it’s never guaranteed,” Brandt said.