NuSTAR Puts New Spin On Supermassive Black Holes

A supermassive black hole has been found in an unusual spot: an isolated region of space where only small, dim galaxies reside. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Checking out the spin rate on a supermassive black hole is a great way for astronomers to test Einstein’s theory under extreme conditions – and take a close look at how intense gravity distorts the fabric of space-time. Now, imagine a monster … one that has a mass of about 2 million times that of our Sun, measures 2 million miles in diameter and rotating so fast that it’s nearly breaking the speed of light.

A fantasy? Not hardly. It’s a supermassive black hole located at the center of spiral galaxy NGC 1365 – and it is about to teach us a whole lot more about how black holes and galaxies mature.

What makes researchers so confident they have finally taken definitive calculations of such an incredible spin rate in a distant galaxy? Thanks to data taken by the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, and the European Space Agency’s XMM-Newton X-ray satellites, the team of scientists has peered into the heart of NGC 1365 with x-ray eyes – taking note of the location of the event horizon – the edge of the spinning hole where surrounding space begins to be dragged into the mouth of the beast.

“We can trace matter as it swirls into a black hole using X-rays emitted from regions very close to the black hole,” said the coauthor of a new study, NuSTAR principal investigator Fiona Harrison of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. “The radiation we see is warped and distorted by the motions of particles and the black hole’s incredibly strong gravity.”

However, the studies didn’t stop there, they advanced to the inner edge to encompass the location of the accretion disk. Here is the “Innermost Stable Circular Orbit” – the proverbial point of no return. This region is directly related to a black hole’s spin rate. Because space-time is distorted in this area, some of it can get even closer to the ISCO before being pulled in. What makes the current data so compelling is to see deeper into the black hole through a broader range of x-rays, allowing astronomers to see beyond veiling clouds of dust which only confused past readings. These new findings show us it isn’t the dust that distorts the x-rays – but the crushing gravity.

Scientists measure the spin rates of supermassive black holes by spreading the X-ray light into different colors. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Scientists measure the spin rates of supermassive black holes by spreading the X-ray light into different colors. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

“This is the first time anyone has accurately measured the spin of a supermassive black hole,” said lead author Guido Risaliti of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) and INAF — Arcetri Observatory.

“If I could have added one instrument to XMM-Newton, it would have been a telescope like NuSTAR,” said Norbert Schartel, XMM-Newton Project Scientist at the European Space Astronomy Center in Madrid. “The high-energy X-rays provided an essential missing puzzle piece for solving this problem.”

Even though the central black hole in NGC 1365 is a monster now, it didn’t begin as one. Like all things, including the galaxy itself, it evolved with time. Over millions of years it gained in girth as it consumed stars and gas – possibly even merging with other black holes along the way.

“The black hole’s spin is a memory, a record, of the past history of the galaxy as a whole,” explained Risaliti.

“These monsters, with masses from millions to billions of times that of the sun, are formed as small seeds in the early universe and grow by swallowing stars and gas in their host galaxies, merging with other giant black holes when galaxies collide, or both,” said the study’s lead author, Guido Risaliti of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics in Cambridge, Mass., and the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics.

This new spin on black holes has shown us that a monster can emerge from “ordered accretion” – and not simply random multiple events. The team will continue their studies to see how factors other than black hole spin changes over time and continue to observe several other supermassive black holes with NuSTAR and XMM-Newton.

“This is hugely important to the field of black hole science,” said Lou Kaluzienski, NuSTAR program scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C. “NASA and ESA telescopes tackled this problem together. In tandem with the lower-energy X-ray observations carried out with XMM-Newton, NuSTAR’s unprecedented capabilities for measuring the higher energy X-rays provided an essential, missing puzzle piece for unraveling this problem.”

Original Story Source: JPL/NASA News Release.

NASA: Reaches for New Heights – Greatest Hits Video

Video Caption: At NASA, we’ve been a little busy: landing on Mars, developing new human spacecraft, going to the space station, working with commercial partners, observing the Earth and the Sun, exploring our solar system and understanding our universe. And that’s not even everything.Credit: NASA

Check out this cool action packed video titled “NASA: Reaching for New Heights” – to see NASA’s ‘Greatest Hits’ from the past year

The 4 minute film is a compilation of NASA’s gamut of Robotic Science and Human Spaceflight achievements to explore and understand Planet Earth here at home and the heavens above- ranging from our Solar System and beyond to the Galaxy and the vast expanse of the Universe.

Image caption: Planets and Moons in perspective. Credit: NASA

The missions and programs featured include inspiringly beautiful imagery from : Curiosity, Landsat, Aquarius, GRACE, NuSTAR, GRAIL, Dawn at Asteroid Vesta, SDO, X-48C Amelia, Orion, SLS, Apollo, SpaceX, Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser, Boeing CST-100, Commercial Crew, Hurricane Sandy from the ISS, Robonaut and more !

And even more space exploration thrills are coming in 2013 !

Ken Kremer

IMG_3760a_SpaceX launch 22 May 2012

Image caption: SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket blasts off on May 22, 2012 with Dragon cargo capsule from Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla., on the first commercial mission to the International Space Station. The next launch is set for March 1, 2013. Credit: Ken Kremer

First Light Image for NuSTAR

Here is the first image taken by the newest space mission, NuSTAR, or the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, the first space telescope with the ability to see the highest energy X-rays in our universe and produce crisp images of them.

“Today, we obtained the first-ever focused images of the high-energy X-ray universe,” said Fiona Harrison, the mission’s principal investigator. “It’s like putting on a new pair of glasses and seeing aspects of the world around us clearly for the first time.”

With the successful “first light” images, the mission will begin its exploration of the most elusive and energetic black holes — as well as other areas of extreme physics in our cosmos — to help in our understanding of the structure of the universe.

The first images show Cygnus X-1, a black hole in our galaxy that is siphoning gas off a giant-star companion. This particular black hole was chosen as a first target because it is extremely bright in X-rays, allowing the NuSTAR team to easily see where the telescope’s focused X-rays are falling on the detectors.

NuSTAR launched on June 13 and its lengthy mast, which provides the telescope mirrors and detectors with the distance needed to focus X-rays, was deployed on June 21. The NuSTAR team spent the next week verifying the pointing and motion capabilities of the satellite, and fine-tuning the alignment of the mast.

The mission’s primary observing program is expected to start in about two weeks. But before it does, the team will continue tests and point the NuSTAR at two other bright calibration targets: G21.5-0.9, the remnant of a supernova explosion that occurred several thousand years ago in our own Milky Way galaxy; and 3C273, an actively feeding black hole, or quasar, located 2 billion light-years away at the center of another galaxy. These targets will be used to make a small adjustment to place the X-ray light at the optimum spot on the detector, and to further calibrate and understand the telescope in preparation for future science observations.

Other targets for the mission include the burnt-out remains of dead stars, such as those that exploded as supernovae; high-speed jets; the temperamental surface of our sun; and the structures where galaxies cluster together like mega-cities.

“This is a really exciting time for the team,” said Daniel Stern, the NuSTAR project scientist. “We can already see the power of NuSTAR to crack open the high-energy X-ray universe and reveal secrets that were impossible to get at before.”

Lead image caption: NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, has taken its first snapshots of the highest-energy X-rays in the cosmos (lower right), producing images that are much crisper than previous high-energy telescopes (example in upper right). NuSTAR chose a black hole in the constellation Cygnus (shown in the skymap on the left) as its first target due to its brightness. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NuSTAR Successfully Deploys Huge Mast

Nine days after launch — and right on schedule — the newest space mission has deployed its unique mast, giving it the ability to see the highest energy X-rays in our universe. The Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, successfully deployed its lengthy 10-meter (33-foot) mast on June 21, and mission scientists say they are one step closer to beginning its hunt for black holes hiding in our Milky Way and other galaxies.

“It’s a real pleasure to know that the mast, an accomplished feat of engineering, is now in its final position,” said Yunjin Kim, the NuSTAR project manager at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Kim was also the project manager for the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission, which flew a similar mast on the Space Shuttle Endeavor in 2000 and made topographic maps of Earth.

NuSTAR will search out the most elusive and most energetic black holes, to help in our understanding of the structure of the universe.

NuSTAR has many innovative technologies to allow the telescope to take the first-ever crisp images of high-energy X-ray, and the long mast separates the telescope mirrors from the detectors, providing the distance needed to focus the X-rays.

This is the first deployable mast ever used on a space telescope; the mast was folded up in a small canister during launch.

At 10:43 a.m. PDT (1:43 p.m. EDT) engineers at NuSTAR’s mission control at UC Berkeley in California sent a signal to the spacecraft to start extending the mast, a stable, rigid structure consisting of 56 cube-shaped units. Driven by a motor, the mast steadily inched out of a canister as each cube was assembled one by one. The process took about 26 minutes. Engineers and astronomers cheered seconds after they received word from the spacecraft that the mast was fully deployed and secure.

The NuSTAR team will now begin to verify the pointing and motion capabilities of the satellite, and fine-tune the alignment of the mast. In about five days, the team will instruct NuSTAR to take its “first light” pictures, which are used to calibrate the telescope.
Less than 20 days later, science operations are scheduled to begin.

“With its unprecedented spatial and spectral resolution to the previously poorly explored hard X-ray region of the electromagnetic spectrum, NuSTAR will open a new window on the universe and will provide complementary data to NASA’s larger missions, including Fermi, Chandra, Hubble and Spitzer,” said Paul Hertz, NASA’s Astrophysics Division Director.

NuSTAR launched on an Orbital Science Corporation’s Pegasus rocket, which was dropped from a carrier plane, the L-1011 “Stargazer,” also from Orbital.

Lead image caption: Artist’s concept of NuSTAR in orbit. NuSTAR has a 33-foot (10-meter) mast that deploys after launch to separate the optics modules (right) from the detectors in the focal plane (left). Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Source: JPL

Black Hole Hunter Drops from a Plane, Zooms to Orbit

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The newest mission to hunt for black holes soared to orbit today after first dropping from an aircraft. NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) launched 16:00 UTC (12 noon EDT, 9 a.m. PDT). NuSTAR was strapped to an Orbital Sciences Pegasus rocket, both of which strapped to an L-1011 “Stargazer” aircraft. The plane left Kwajalein Atoll in the central Pacific Ocean one hour before launch. Then at 9:00:35 a.m. PDT the rocket dropped, free-falling for five seconds before firing its first-stage motor.

“NuSTAR will help us find the most elusive and most energetic black holes, to help us understand the structure of the universe,” said Fiona Harrison, the mission’s principal investigator at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

Watch the video of the launch below.

About 13 minutes after the rocket dropped, NuSTAR separated from the rocket, reaching its final low Earth orbit. The first signal from the spacecraft was received at 9:14 a.m. PDT via NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite System.

“NuSTAR spread its solar panels to charge the spacecraft battery and then reported back to Earth of its good health,” said Yunjin Kim, the mission’s project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “We are checking out the spacecraft now and are excited to tune into the high-energy X-ray sky.”

The mission’s unique telescope design includes a 33-foot (10-meter) mast, which was folded up in a small canister during launch. In about seven days, engineers will command the mast to extend, enabling the telescope to focus properly. About 23 days later, science operations are scheduled to begin.
“With its unprecedented spatial and spectral resolution to the previously poorly explored hard X-ray region of the electromagnetic spectrum, NuSTAR will open a new window on the universe and will provide complementary data to NASA’s larger missions, including Fermi, Chandra, Hubble and Spitzer,” said Paul Hertz, NASA’s Astrophysics Division Director.

Combining all the data from the telescopes together will provide a more complete picture of the most energetic and exotic objects in space, such as black holes, dead stars and jets traveling near the speed of light.

NuSTAR will use a unique set of eyes to see the highest energy X-ray light from the cosmos. The observatory can see through gas and dust to reveal black holes lurking in our Milky Way galaxy, as well as those hidden in the hearts of faraway galaxies.

In addition to black holes and their powerful jets, NuSTAR will study a host of high-energy objects in our universe, including the remains of exploded stars; compact, dead stars; and clusters of galaxies. The mission’s observations, in coordination with other telescopes such as NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, which detects lower-energy X-rays, will help solve fundamental cosmic mysteries. NuSTAR also will study our Sun’s fiery atmosphere, looking for clues as to how it is heated.

Learn more about NuStar at the mission website.

Newest X-Ray Observatory Will Hunt for Black Holes and More

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The next launch of a NASA space mission is the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR. It study wide range of objects in space, from massive black holes to our own Sun, and will be the first space telescope to create focused images of cosmic X-rays with the highest energies.

“We will see the hottest, densest and most energetic objects with a fundamentally new, high-energy X-ray telescope that can obtain much deeper and crisper images than before,” said Fiona Harrison, the NuSTAR principal investigator, who has been working on this project for 20 years.

Meanwhile, NASA has cancelled another X-ray telescope, the Gravity and Extreme Magnetism Small Explorer (GEMS) X-ray telescope, an astrophysics mission that was going to launch in 2014 to observe the space near neutron stars and black holes. GEMS failed meet a the qualifications of a confirmation review and was heading to go over budget.

“The decision was made to non-confirm GEMS,” said Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s Astrophysic Division, at a meeting of the National Research Council’s Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics. “The rationale was that the pre-confirmation cost and schedule growth was too large.” The project was going well over the initial cost of $105 million and was facing a delay in launch.

But NuSTAR is scheduled to launch on June 13 from the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean near the equator. The X-ray space telescope will initially take off on a L-1011 “Stargazer” aircraft, and then launch in midair into orbit on a Pegasus XL rocket from Orbital Sciences.

The mission has been awaiting launch since March, when NASA delayed its liftoff pending a review of the rocket.

NuSTAR will work with other telescopes in space now, including NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory, which observes lower-energy X-rays. Together, they will provide a more complete picture of the most energetic and exotic objects in space, such as black holes, dead stars and jets traveling near the speed of light.

This new observatory looks with X-rays similar to the X-rays used in hospitals and airports, but the telescope will have more than 10 times the resolution and more than 100 times the sensitivity of previous telescopes.

“NuSTAR uses several innovations for its unprecedented imaging capability and was made possible by many partners,” said Yunjin Kim, the project manager for the mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. “We’re all really excited to see the fruition of our work begin its mission in space.”

NuSTAR has an innovative design using a nested shell of mirrors to provide better focus. It also has state-of-the-art detectors and a large 33-foot (10-meter) mast, which connects the detectors to the nested mirrors, providing the long distance required to focus the X-rays. This mast is folded up into a canister small enough to fit atop the Pegasus launch vehicle. It will unfurl about seven days after launch. About 23 days later, science operations will begin.
The mission will focus on studying the formation of black holes and investigate how exploding stars forge the elements that make up planets and people, along with study the Sun’s atmosphere.

Sources: JPL Space News (GEMS)