WASHINGTON - The U.S. space agency launched a telescope into space Wednesday that is designed to seek out and study black holes, those still-mysterious celestial bodies that scientists believe lie at the heart of every massive galaxy, including our own Milky Way.
Their gravitational pull is so intense that not even light can escape from them. As gas, dust and stars are sucked in, the material accelerates and heats up, generating powerful X-ray light emissions.
To further study black holes, NASA has launched a new telescope called NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) to see what it might find.
"Stars, nebulae and black holes emit X-rays of the type that we use in medical X-rays, and these cannot be detected from the surface of the Earth," said Paul Hertz, director of NASA's astrophysics division. "But the NuSTAR telescope will focus these X-rays onto its digital camera and send the pictures back to Earth for scientific analysis."
Scientists expect to start getting science data about a month after NuSTAR's launch.
It will be studied by people around the world, including NuSTAR's principal investigator, Fiona Harrison.
"NuSTAR will open a whole new window on the universe, by being the very first telescope to focus high-energy X-rays," said Harrison. "As such, it will make images that are 10 times crisper and 100 times more sensitive than any telescope that is operated in this region of the spectrum."
About a week after NuSTAR launches, its 10-meter mast will deploy, separating the mirrors from the detectors. That provides the distance required to focus the X-ray light into sharp images.
The telescope will be able to find black holes hidden behind screens of dust and gas. It will also be able to tell how quickly a black hole is spinning, which will help scientists learn how black holes form.
"Like all of our NASA missions, we're going to find unexpected things out there that will lead us to questions and answers that we aren't even anticipating at this time," added Hertz.
NASA scientists say one of NuSTAR's goals is to take a census of collapsed stars and black holes in the universe.