NASA Podcasts

NuSTAR on Search for High-Energy Universe
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There's more to the universe than meets the eye, so NASA is going to launch an observatory called NuSTAR to see some of the things we've been missing.
NuSTAR stands for Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, and it is designed to give astronomers unprecedented looks at some of the highest-energy objects in the universe, from stars that recently exploded to black holes.
Fiona Harrison,
NuSTAR Principal Investigator
NuSTAR will be the very first high energy x-ray telescope that can actually focus. That'll make images that are 10 times crisper, sharper, than anything that's been made in this part of the electromagnetic spectrum before.

Daniel Stern,
NuSTAR Project Scientist
NuSTAR's going to teach us fundamental things about the universe, from what heats the corona of the sun or the atmosphere of the sun to understanding black holes distributed across the universe.

We think two out of every three black holes in the universe are hidden.

Instead of looking at visible light the way a traditional telescope does, NuSTAR is equipped with specialized equipment that will see what are known as hard X-rays. Produced by extremely violent events in the universe, hard X-rays are similar to the X-rays dentists use to look into teeth.

It's much like Galileo 400 years ago was the first person to focus visible light with his new telescope. NuSTAR is the first instrument that's going to focus high-energy X-ray light. And this buys us more than 10 times sharper images, more than 100 times more sensitive pictures and allows us to study some of the most energetic phenomena across the universe.

For as big a task as it is taking on, the NuSTAR observatory is not very large.

Garrett Skrobot,
NuSTAR Mission Manager
Compared to a Juno or an MSL (Mars Science Laboratory), it's a lot smaller. It's about 350 kilograms, about the size of a refrigerator or a little less. It's compact, but it only has one basic instrument on the spacecraft itself where the other spacecraft have multiple instruments on them.

A Pegasus rocket, the smallest available to NASA's Launch Services Program, is to lift NuSTAR into Earth orbit.

Omar Baez,
Launch Director
Pegasus is our most unique rocket, period. If you take a look at it, it's got a wing on it, which the rest of our ELV launch vehicles don't. The next thing you notice is it's hanging off the bottom of an L-1011 carrier aircraft, which is quite unique also. To top it off, the way we launch it is we drop it just like you would a weapon or a bomb and a few seconds later this thing lights off and scoots in front of the L-1011. It's unique in all kinds of aspects.

Launching from an airplane add another aspect of critical timing for the launch team to consider.

You've got to be at the right place, the right point, at the right time and everything's got to mesh to be able to do that correctly. So as far as my launch director role, this is one of our most challenging types of missions, but it's also more fun because of that.

The NuSTAR spacecraft will launch from an island in the Pacific Ocean called Kwajalein, part of the Ronald Reagan Test Site.

NuSTAR has some particular requirements to be around an equatorial orbit so they can do some observations of the science they want to perform. Kwajalein is not really a launch site, it's more of a receive kind of site where the Pegasus and the L-1011, we're bringing the rocket to them and we'll go forth and fly it off the L-1011.

Once flying on its own in orbit, NuSTAR will deploy a solar array to produce electricity. Later, NuSTAR will extend a 33-foot-long span with sensors on one end that will capture X-rays so astronomers can see what's out there.

We have a set of planned observations of things we're safely sure we're going to see, but the big excitement is we might see things that are unexpected.

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