06.13.12

5 Cool Facts About NASA’s NuSTAR X-Ray Telescope

NuSTAR, which NASA launches today, will unlock endless new opportunities for astronomers to investigate black holes and supernovas. Jesse Singal lists five of the new instrument’s most exciting features, including its potential to help attack tumors.

Later today, assuming all goes according to plan, NASA will launch the nuclear spectroscopic telescope array, or NuSTAR. This powerful telescope, which will use its unrivaled visual power to examine various high-energy space oddities, is a delicious, sophisticated piece of nerd bait. Here are five of its most interesting features.

1. It’s a Transformer.

It took more than a decade of research to develop NuSTAR’s sophisticated method for resolving images from distant, high-energy X-rays. It’s a tricky process, and requires about 10 meters (or 33 feet)—about the length of a school bus—to bring an image into focus. When launching something into orbit, every extra cubic inch of volume means extra cost, so NuSTAR’s engineers came up with a Transformers-esque solution to prevent the telescope from being “prohibitively expensive” to launch, as Bill Craig, NuSTAR’s instrument manager, put it: launch it at a contracted length of about two meters, and then, once it’s safely in orbit, expand it—in an elegant but nerve-jarring process involving thousands of moving parts—out to its functional length.

2. It’s the most powerful X-ray telescope ever.

Many objects in the universe emit X-rays, so detecting this form of light is a great way to learn more about the universe. But even the most powerful, preexisting X-ray telescopes have been able to detect only low-energy or so-called soft X-ray beams. NuSTAR, on the other hand, will be able to observe X-rays that are 10 times more energetic than those that have previously been detected. In other words, says, Craig, he and his team were able to extend the telescope’s energy range by an order of magnitude over its predecessors. This technology will unlock endless new opportunities for astronomers to investigate black holes, supernovas, and other violently powerful astronomical phenomena.

3. It will be launched from an airplane.

The Pegasus XL rocket giving NuSTAR a lift into space won’t be heading straight up from a Cape Canaveral launch pad, but instead will be strapped to a “Stargazer” L-1011 aircraft that will take off from Kwajalein Atoll in the South Pacific. The plane will then fly toward the equator, climbing to an altitude of 40,000 feet before dropping its payload, which will blast into space after a few seconds of free fall. An orbit near the equator was important for a variety of reasons. For one thing, it allows NuSTAR to avoid the South Atlantic Anomaly, an area “where the magnetic field which protects the earth from charged particles kind of dips down,” as Craig puts it. If NuSTAR had to pass through this area, it would experience thousands of times more background “noise” than usual every time it did so, making it far more difficult to resolve images of objects in deep space.

Medicine is always on the prowl for more powerful, focused imaging technology, and NuSTAR could lead to advances on this front.

4. NuSTAR will help teach us about the building blocks of our own bodies.

Virtually everything in our bodies—and every element on earth in general—was produced in a supernova, a staggeringly powerful explosion of a star that occurs once or twice a century or so in our galaxy. NuSTAR will probe these explosions with its powerful X-ray eyes. “We don’t really understand all of the physics of supernovae at this point,” says Craig, “and being able to look at the remnants of these explosions in a totally different way, being able to look at high-sensitivity at the elements that were actually produced, gives us some understanding of how these things work and how they might behave.”

5. Down the road, NuSTAR could lead to important advances in medical imaging technology.

For all of NuSTAR’s astoundingly powerful abilities at imaging the cosmos, some of the most important long-term ramifications of the project may be of a more terrestrial nature. Medicine is always on the prowl for more powerful, focused imaging technology, and Craig says NuSTAR could lead to advances on this front. Down the road, once the innovations powering NuSTAR have trickled down, they could “really improve the specificity and the dose rate you might use in medical treatment,” says Craig. So while in the short term NuSTAR’s technology is aimed firmly at black holes and supernovae, in the long term it could help attack life-threatening tumors.