New space telescope to investigate high-powered X-rays

June 11, 2012

A new space telescope is scheduled to rocket into orbit during a launch window that began at 11:30 a.m. EDT on June 13. Penn State astronomers are among the scientists who will use NASA's new Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) to hunt for black holes and other dramatic objects in space that produce high-powered X-rays.

NuSTAR will create highly focused images of high-energy cosmic X-rays with much greater sensitivity and clarity than ever before -- the same types of X-rays used in medical imaging and airport scanners. "NuSTAR's targeted sensitivity to high-energy X-rays will enable us to penetrate through the gas and dust that surrounds and obscures the supermassive black holes at the centers of the most-energetic galaxy cores, which we call active galactic nuclei," said William Niel Brandt, Distinguished Professor of Astronomy and Astrophysics at Penn State. Brandt is a member of two NuSTAR Science Team Working Groups: "Obscured Active Galactic Nuclei" and "Extragalactic Surveys." Bin Luo, a postdoctoral scholar in Brandt's research group, also is a member of NuSTAR's Extragalactic Surveys working group.

The NuSTAR observatory will be launched from Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands on an Orbital Sciences Corporation Pegasus XL launch vehicle that will be released from an aircraft while it is flying southward from the atoll. Photos and links to more information are online at science.psu.edu. Live coverage and commentary will be broadcast online beginning at 10 a.m. EDT, 90 minutes before scheduled launch, at www.nasa.gov/nustar and at ustream.tv/nasajpl2.

The mission's focus includes some of the hottest, densest, and most energetic objects in the universe, including black holes, high-speed jets traveling at nearly the speed of light, ultra-dense neutron stars, and supernova remnants, as well as the Sun. Among its several goals, NuSTAR will tackle the puzzle of how black holes and galaxies evolve together over cosmic time.

Brandt said he is particularly excited to begin X-ray investigations of some quasars that are highly obscured by the winds they are driving from the nuclear region of their galaxies. "These winds blow at millions of miles per hour -- you definitely wouldn't want to get caught in one," he said. "We want to measure the amount of obscuring material to help understand the wind's power. We also want to determine the strength of the underlying X-ray emission from the black hole as it pulls in, or accretes, the matter that is swirling around it."

As part of the "Obscured Active Galactic Nuclei" effort, Brandt is leading a program to analyze the separate wavelengths of high-energy radiation from Broad Absorption Line quasars. "The brilliant radiation being produced by these quasars drives powerful outflowing winds that are important because material associated with the winds may provide feedback into the galaxy in which the quasar lives, by sweeping up surrounding gas. This process can affect star formation and the ability of the black hole to accrete and grow further," Brandt explained.

The "Extragalactic Surveys" Science Team Working Group will use NuSTAR to survey with high sensitivity two well-studied extragalactic fields. One of these fields is the Extended Chandra Deep Field-South, which Brandt's group has been investigating extensively since 2005. Brandt and Luo will help with the NuSTAR data analysis and the interpretation efforts on extragalactic surveys, especially helping to make connections between the NuSTAR data, corresponding Chandra data, and corresponding multiwavelength data.

The observatory has more than 10 times the resolution, and more than 100 times the sensitivity, of its predecessor telescopes while operating in a similar energy range. "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 who first conceived of the mission 20 years ago. The mission will work with other telescopes in space now, including NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, which observes lower-energy X-rays, and NASA's Swift space satellite, whose science and flight operations are controlled from Penn State's Mission Operations Center in State College, Pa. Together, the three observatories will provide a more complete picture of the most energetic and exotic objects in space.

In addition to Brandt and Luo, several former members of Brandt's research group at Penn State are participating NuSTAR scientists, including Dave Alexander, a former postdoctoral scholar who now is a professor at Durham University; Franz Bauer, a former postdoctoral scholar who now is a professor in Chile at Pontificia Universidad Catolica; and Ann Hornschemeier, a former graduate student who now is a research astrophysicist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. Jane Rigby, who earned her undergraduate degree at Penn State, also is a member of the NuSTAR science team.

For more information, contact Brandt at niel@astro.psu.edu or 814-777-4042; Harrison at fiona@srl.caltech.edu; or Barbara Kennedy, Penn State Eberly College of Science PIO, at science@psu.edu or 814-863-4682.

High-resolution images and other media associated with this research are online at http://science.psu.edu/news-and-events/2012-news/Brandt6-2012.

More about NuSTAR

NuSTAR is a Small Explorer mission led by the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, also in Pasadena, for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington. The spacecraft was built by Orbital Sciences Corporation, Dulles, Va. Its instrument was built by a consortium including Caltech; JPL; the University of California, Berkeley; Columbia University, New York; NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.; the Danish Technical University in Denmark; Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Livermore, Calif.; and ATK Aerospace Systems, 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, Rohnert Park, Calif. NASA's Explorer Program is managed by Goddard. JPL is managed by Caltech for NASA. Launch management and government oversight for the mission is the responsibility of NASA's Launch Services Program at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. For more information, visit http://www.nasa.gov/nustar and http://www.nustar.caltech.edu/.

  • Artist's concept: This image comparison demonstrates NuSTAR's improved ability to focus high-energy X-ray light into sharp images. The image on the right shows a simulated view of what NuSTAR will see compared to what instruments can see now (left) at similar wavelengths.

    IMAGE: Penn State
Last Updated July 24, 2012