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The Crab Nebula.

The supernova remnant known as the Crab Nebula, as seen in x-rays (blue), infrared, and visual light.

Image courtesy CXC/SAO/ESA/ASU/Caltech/U.Minn/NASA

An airplane releases a Pegasus rocket.

A carrier plane releases a Pegasus rocket. Photograph courtesy Orbital Sciences Corporation.

Brian Handwerk

for National Geographic News

Updated 12:30 p.m. ET, June 13, 2012

At noon eastern time today, a rocket carrying NASA's newest space telescope dropped from a carrier plane, ignited its engines, and lofted the spacecraft into a picture-perfect equatorial orbit.

The solar-powered craft—dubbed the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR—will peer into the mysterious high-energy x-ray universe with unprecedented detail.

Used on Earth for medical imaging and in airport security machines, high-energy x-rays are naturally produced by some of the most exotic objects in the universe. (Also see related pictures: "X-Ray History—Hidden Kitten, Quackery, and More.")

NuSTAR will seek out these rays to capture images of black holes, neutron stars, and other cosmic bodies with a hundred times more sensitivity and ten times better resolution than previous spacecraft.

Current x-ray telescopes—such as NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory and the European Space Agency's XMM-Newton—can get clear looks at objects that emit lower energy x-rays, but due to technical challenges, these craft have trouble bringing higher energy wavelengths into focus.

NuSTAR will use a row of 133 fingernail-thin mirrors stacked like Russian dolls to focus light onto state-of-the-art detectors, producing crisp pictures in high-energy wavelengths.

"We're going to look at the remnants of stars that exploded long ago and also be poised to respond quickly—within a day—to any new explosions like supernovae or gamma-ray bursts," said NuSTAR's principal investigator Fiona Harrison, an astrophysicist at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).

(Related: "New Supernova Found 'Next Door'—Getting Brighter.")

By extending our view of the x-ray universe, the NuSTAR team is "almost guaranteed to make new and exciting discoveries," said MIT's Jeffrey Hoffman, an astronomer and former NASA astronaut who's not affiliated with the mission.

"The experience of astronomy says that every time you open a new wavelength region with much greater clarity—in the infrared, or gamma rays, or now high-energy x-rays—you'll have exciting discoveries," he said.

"Which ones will turn out to be the real superstars, we don't know yet."

Air-Drop Rocket

Folded up for flight, the refrigerator-size NuSTAR launched from the U.S. Army's Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site on Kwajalein Atoll, about midway between Hawaii and Australia.

Cruising over the Pacific, the carrier plane dropped a Pegasus rocket carrying the spacecraft at about 40,000 feet (12,000 meters). After a few seconds of free fall, the rocket ignited in midair and soared into space.

Once in orbit, NuSTAR deployed its solar arrays. It will soon extend its 33-foot-long (10-meter-long) mast to begin collecting data for its two-year primary mission phase.

Among its science goals, NuSTAR is designed to seek out and study black holes in our Milky Way galaxy and beyond.

Researchers hope the craft's data will help improve our understanding of how black holes form during the violent collapses of dying stars and how the objects grow as they consume nearby matter, from dust and gas to whole planets and stars.

(See "Monster Black Holes Gobble Binary Stars to Grow?")

Black holes are often defined as objects so massive that nothing, not even light, can escape their grasp. But matter falling into a black hole gets so hot that it emits huge amounts of radiation, helping scientists pinpoint the otherwise invisible objects.

With NuSTAR's increased sensitivity, "you'll be able to see further in toward the surface of a black hole, because as you get closer, the energy of the radiation that's coming out gets higher and higher," MIT's Hoffman said.

"Being able to focus on these higher energies is all new, and it will really help us to probe the structure of black holes."

NuSTAR will also explore the strange behavior of extreme black holes, such as the supermassive monsters at the centers of most large galaxies.

Actively feeding galactic black holes, also called blazars, act like cosmic particle accelerators, cranking out jets of high-energy radiation at nearly the speed of light.

(Related: "Lightning Creates Particle Accelerators Above Earth.")

Studying x-rays from these jets can give scientists a better picture of their structure and composition, helping them to figure out why some supermassive black holes are feeding while others remain dormant.

Expecting the Unexpected

NuSTAR's extreme x-ray vision will also help scientists decipher how star explosions seed the universe with ingredients for galaxies, stars, planets—and even life.

When a supermassive star runs out of hydrogen in its core, it starts fusing atoms into progressively heavier elements. Eventually the dying star collapses and explodes as a supernova, which litters the cosmos with atoms of oxygen, carbon, iron, and more.

NuSTAR will be able to see the high-energy x-rays from radioactive nuclei initially produced in the explosions.

"Elements like iron and the calcium in our bones are forged in stars and expelled out into the galaxies [by supernovae]. We are 'star stuff,'" mission leader Harrison said.

"The material in our bodies was forged in the stars, and by being able to study the explosions and the material that gets expelled, we can learn a lot about how these explosions happen and how these elements are created."

(Related: "Supernova's Beginning Blast Shown in 3-D—A First.")

NuSTAR will also collect information on the ruins of dead stars, such as the variety of ultradense neutron stars left over by some supernovae, including highly magnetic magnetars and rapidly rotating pulsars.

This stellar graveyard can serve as a laboratory for observing the unique physics of matter at gravitational extremes.

In addition to these well-defined science objectives, Harrison said, the mission team is ready to explore the unknown.

"I'm expecting that some of our greatest scientific highlights won't be the things we've predicted," she said.

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