Space

June 14, 2012

Orbital’s Pegasus launches X-ray observatory

Tags:
by Raphael Jaffe
Staff Writer

An artist’s concept of NuSTAR on orbit. NuSTAR has a 33-foot mast that deploys after launch to separate the optics modules (right) from the detectors in the focal plane (left). The spacecraft, which controls NuSTAR’s pointings, and the solar panels are with the focal plane. NuSTAR has two identical optics modules in order to increase sensitivity.

NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, was successfully launched from Kwajalein Atoll in the central Pacific Ocean June 13.

The mission will study everything from massive black holes to our own sun.

The observatory was perched atop an Orbital Sciences Corp Pegasus XL rocket, that was strapped to the bottom of, the L-1011 Stargazer aircraft, also operated by Orbital. Stargazer dropped the rocket at 9 a.m., PDT, half an hour past the first scheduled time. The delay was needed to check out a suspicious reading, which the launch team decided would not interfere with the mission.

The launch and NuSTAR deployment gave “nominal readings throughout,” according to Tim Dunn, assistant launch control officer.

Pegasus was released from Stargazer at about 39,000 feet, and the first stage rocket motor ignited five seconds later. It burned for 70 seconds and then dropped away. The second-stage motor burned for about a minute-and-a-half, during which pyrotechnic devices fired to release the nose cone fairing that encapsulates the observatory. NuSTAR will be exposed to space for the first time.

At 13 minutes after the initial release from Stargazer, NuSTAR separated from the Pegasus rocket’s third stage. At this point, NuSTAR is in its final orbit – a low-Earth equatorial orbit at an altitude of approximately 340 miles and an inclination of six degrees.

A previous Stargazer drop of a Pegasus mission shows the Pegasus wings and stabilizers that insure horizontal flight path before rocket firing.

NuSTAR is the first space telescope to create focused images of cosmic X-rays with the highest energies. The telescope will have more than 10 times the resolution and more than 100 times the sensitivity of its predecessors while operating at this energy range, at which X-rays re called gamma rays. NuSTAR weighs 772 lb.

The mission 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.

NuSTAR will study black holes that are big and small, far and near, answering questions about the formation and physics behind these wonders of the cosmos. The observatory will also investigate how exploding stars forge the elements that make up planets and people, and it will even study our own sun’s atmosphere.

The observatory is able to focus the high-energy X-ray light into sharp images because of a complex, innovative telescope design. High-energy light is difficult to focus because it only reflects off mirrors when hitting at nearly parallel angles. NuSTAR solves this problem with nested shells of mirrors. It has the most nested shells ever used in a space telescope: 133 in each of two optic units. The mirrors were molded from ultra-thin glass similar to that found in laptop screens and glazed with even thinner layers of reflective coating.

The telescope also consists of state-of-the-art detectors and a lengthy 33-foot 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 in about seven days after launch. About 23 days later, science operations will begin

“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 at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif., who first conceived of the mission 20 years ago.

“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 truly demonstrates the value that NASA’s research and development programs provide in advancing the nation’s science agenda,” said Paul Hertz, NASA’s Astrophysics Division director. “Taking just over four years from receiving the project go-ahead to launch, this low-cost Explorer mission will use new mirror and detector technology that was developed in NASA’s basic research program and tested in NASA’s scientific ballooning program. The result of these modest investments is a small space telescope that will provide world-class science in an important but relatively unexplored band of the electromagnetic spectrum.”

NuSTAR is a Small Explorer mission led by Caltech and managed by JPL for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The spacecraft was built by Orbital Sciences Corp. Its instrument was built by a consortium including Caltech; JPL; University of California at Berkeley); Columbia University in New York; NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center; the Danish Technical University in Denmark; Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory; and ATK Aerospace Systems in Goleta, Calif. NuSTAR will be operated by UC Berkeley, with the Italian Space Agency providing its equatorial ground station located at Malindi, Kenya. The mission’s outreach program is based at Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, Calif. NASA’s Explorer Program is managed by Goddard. JPL is managed by Caltech for NASA.




All of this week's top headlines to your email every Friday.


 
 

 
NASA photograph

NASA begins engine test project for space launch system rocket

NASA photograph RS-25 rocket engine No. 0525 is positioned onto the A-1 Test Stand at NASAís Stennis Space Center in Mississippi preparation for a series of developmental tests. Engineers have taken a crucial step in preparing...
 
 

SSL selected to study asteroid retrieval for NASA

Space Systems/Loral, a leading provider of commercial satellites, announced July 18 that it was one of the companies selected by NASA to study system concepts and key technologies for NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission, which is expected to be a key part of the agency’s path to sending humans to Mars. SSL will conduct two studies;...
 
 
NASA image

NASA turns over next-gen air traffic management tool to FAA

NASA image As seen in this image, Terminal Sequencing and Spacing technology enables air traffic controllers to better manage the spacing between aircraft as they save both time and fuel and reducing emissions, flying more effi...
 

 
Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech, and SETI Institute

NASA seeks proposals for Europa mission science instruments

Image courtesy of NASA/JPL-Caltech, and SETI Institute Compiled from NASAís Galileo spacecraft data, this colorized surface image of Europa shows the blue-white terrains which indicate relatively pure water ice. Scientists are...
 
 

NASA announces early career faculty space tech research grants

NASA has selected seven university-led proposals for the study of innovative, early stage technologies that address high priority needs for America’s space program. The selected proposals for unique, disruptive, or transformational space technologies will address challenges in robotic mobility when traversing extreme terrain, in developing lightweight and multifunctional materials and str...
 
 
NASA photograph

NASA Armstrong recalls first moon landing, preps for ‘next giant leap’

NASA photograph In this 1967 NASA Flight Research Center photograph the Lunar Landing Research Vehicle (LLRV) No. 2 is viewed from the front. This photograph provides a good view of the pilot’s platform with the restricti...
 




0 Comments


Be the first to comment!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>