The Space Telescope NuSTAR was successfully launched

Artist concept of the Space Telescope NuSTAR fully extended (Image NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Artist concept of the Space Telescope NuSTAR fully extended (Image NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Yesterday, when it was morning in the Pacific Ocean, the Space Telescope NuStar (Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array) was launched and successfully entered orbit.

NuStar will use a Wolter telescope, a telescope for high energy X-rays (6 to 79 keV) using grazing incidence optics. This is because X-rays can be deflected and focused only with small angles, unlike visible light.

In the ’50s, German physicist Hans Wolter outlined three possible configurations to building an X-ray telescope. NuStar is equipped with two optical units of the type called Wolter-I each of which consists of 133 very thin cylindrical mirrors. These mirrors are assembled one above the other in order to focus as much X-rays light as possible.

Given its small size, NuStar wasn’t launched using a rocket lifting off from the ground but by a small rocket Pegasus XL launched from an airplane L-1011 Stargazer that took off from the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean.

NuStar, the L-1011 Stargazer aircraft and the Pegasus XL rocket are all products of Orbital Science Corporation, a veteran of space launches. In fact, the Pegasus XL rocket was tested for the first time in 1990 and in its first flight it was launched from a Boeing NB-52B “Balls 8”. Since that launch the Pegasus XL has already completed 40 missions before today to carry small loads in low Earth orbit.

The airplane Stargazer is a modified Lockheed L-1011 Tristar and the first flight in which it launched a Pegasus XL rocket took place in 1994. The name Stargazer is an inside joke: in the TV series “Star Trek: The Next Generation”, Commander William Riker served on the starship Pegasus before the Enterprise while Captain Jean-Luc Picard commanded the Stargazer starship. To someone it seemed appropriate that the Pegasus rocket was launched using an airplane called Stargazer. :-)

NuStar’s primary mission, which will last two years, is to conduct a survey of blacks holes to better understand how they work, map supernova explosions, study the nature of the most powerful cosmic accelerators and identify high-energy sources in our galaxy.

NuStar will work together with other space telescopes already in operation, including the Chandra telescope, which observes low-energy X-rays. There are still many mysteries in the universe, NuStar will help us to reveal them.

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