NASA
An artist's concept of NuSTAR on orbit. The mission's launch is slated for this spring, though no firm date has been set. NuSTAR has two identical optics modules in order to increase sensitivity. The background is an image of the galactic center obtained with the Chandra X-ray Observatory.
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updated 4/2/2012 2:14:19 PM ET 2012-04-02T18:14:19

Black holes, neutron stars and supernova remnants won't be able to hide in the fog of space for much longer.

NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) mission — which is due to launch this spring, though the agency has yet to pin down a date — will pierce the dust and gas shrouding sources of high-energy X-rays, revealing many secrets they have long managed to conceal, scientists say.

Although telescopes such as NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory have probed the skies with X-rays before, these other instruments have focused on lower-energy bands.

"NuSTAR is going to be the first focusing high-energy X-ray telescope," said mission principal investigator Fiona Harrison of the California Institute of Technology. [ Photos: NuSTAR, NASA's Black-Hole-Hunting Space Telescope ]

NASA
This artist's concept shows what the black hole GX 339-4 might look like as it sucks excess matter from a star orbiting only a few million miles away.

Extreme events
The NuSTAR mission's increased sensitivity will allow it to probe the hearts of other galaxies for some of their most violent and mysterious objects, such as black holes.

Black holes form when a dying star collapses in on itself. As the stellar remnant becomes smaller and more dense, its gravitational pull becomes so strong that not even light can escape.

But as dust and gas fall inward, friction and other forces heat the material to millions of degrees. The resulting X-rays, detectable to NuSTAR, should allow astronomers to calculate how fast black holes are spinning, and understand more about how they formed, researchers say.

Some material also shoots away from black holes in jets approaching the speed of light. The accelerated particles can vary in brightness over the course of time, and NuSTAR will be able to study how they change.

While NuSTAR will study some black holes in distant galaxies, it will also make observations closer to home.

"There is a black hole that's 4 million times the mass of the sun at the heart of the Milky Way," Harrison told Space.com. "It doesn't emit a lot of radiation, for reasons that are somewhat mysterious."

Occasionally, black holes "burp" or "hiccup," giving off a burst of radiation for unknown reasons. Observing the black hole in the high-energy X-ray spectrum should provide more clues about how this local black hole works, researchers say.

Supernovas, too
Black holes aren't NuSTAR's only targets.

"We're also looking at the remnants of stars that have exploded," Harrison said.

Called supernova remnants, the leftover guts of stellar objects can reveal insights into the inner workings of massive stars before they blow.

"We can still see (the material) glowing with radioactivity," Harrison said.

The radioactive leftovers can tell scientists about how the star exploded, and how the materials inside them were formed. Since all elements other than hydrogen and helium were created inside stars and spread into space by supernova explosions, such insights can provide clues about the formation and evolution of the universe, researchers say.

A new technology
High energy X-rays are tough for scientists to work with because they are so difficult to measure, Harrison said.

"The energy range we're talking about for X-rays is the same energy range your doctor or dentist uses to image through skin and see your bones," she said. "High-energy X-rays — or X-rays in general — will only reflect off surfaces at very glancing angles."

Harrison compared this reflection to skipping a stone off the surface of a pond.

Instead of a flat surface, NuSTAR uses 133 nested shells in each of two telescopes. Like Russian dolls, the shells — which are each about as thick as a fingernail — lie inside of one another. As X-rays pass between the layers, they are guided down to the detector.

In comparison, Chandra has only four shells, and each one is about 1 centimeter thick.

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The increased number of shells makes NuSTAR 10 times sharper and 100 times more sensitive than any previous high-energy X-ray telescope, all in a compact, 33-foot (10-meter) package.

"NuSTAR is going to be a tremendous breakthrough, but it's also done on NASA's smallest astrophysics platform, Small Explorers," Harrison said. "It shows you can still do unique and new things on small missions."

Follow Space.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook .

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Photos: Month in Space: March 2012

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  1. Partners in space

    A Russian Proton rocket carrying a US Intelsat-22 satellite blasts off from Kazakhstan's Russian-leased Baikonur cosmodrome on March 25. Intelsat 22 is a new satellite built by Boeing Space Systems for the Intelsat Corp. (AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Weightless winners

    Winners of the annual Red Bull Flugtag competition experience zero-gravity conditions during a flight in a cosmonaut training plane above the Moscow region on March 1. The flight was a prize awarded to the winners of last summer's competition, which required contestants to design, build and fly home-built aircraft. (Sergei Remezov / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Hello, world

    This image of the far side of the lunar surface, with Earth peeking up from the horizon, was taken by the MoonKAM system onboard the NASA GRAIL mission's Ebb spacecraft on March 17 and released on March 23. A little more than halfway up and on the left side of the image is the crater De Forest. The image is one of a set of pictures requested by students at Emily Dickinson Elementary School in Montana as part of the MoonKAM educational program. (NASA / SRS via Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Aurora from above

    The southern lights glow green in a picture taken by Dutch astronaut Andre Kuipers on board the International Space Station between Antarctica and Australia on March 10. The station's lab modules and solar panels can be seen along the upper and right edges of the image. (NASA / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Heavenly lights

    Jonina Oskarsdottir captured this picture of the northern lights on March 8 over Faskrudsfjordur, Iceland. "No words can describe the experience of the northern lights tonight," Oskarsdottir told SpaceWeather.com. She used a Canon EOS 5D Mark II camera to take the shot, with a Canon 14mm f/2.8L USM II lens set for ISO 1600 ... and a 1-second exposure. (Jonina Oskarsdottir) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Spirals in the sea

    Spectacular spirals of ice form in the sea surrounding Russia's Kamchatka Peninsula, in a picture taken by Dutch astronaut Andre Kuipers from the International Space Station on March 15. (André Kuipers / ESA/NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. One giant leap

    Austrian skydiver Felix Baumgartner stands at the threshold of a balloon-borne capsule just before a test jump from a height of 71,500 feet. The successful test was conducted on March 15 over Roswell, N.M., in preparation for Baumgartner's planned supersonic jump from 120,000 feet. That feat would break a 52-year-old record for the highest parachute jump. (Jay Nemeth / Red Bull via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Five-rocket fireworks

    A time-lapse photo shows the ascent of five suborbital sounding rockets from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia on March 27. The launches were part of the Anomalous Transport Rocket Experiment, or ATREX, which was aimed at tracking high-altitude winds in the jet stream. The fiery display was visible along the East Coast from upstate New York and Massachusetts to North Carolina. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Infrared rainbow

    A false-color infrared image, released March 12, shows fledgling stars hidden among the gas and clouds of the Orion Nebula. The colors indicate different infrared wavelengths as detected by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope and the European Space Agency's Herschel telescope. (NASA/ESA/JPL-Caltech/IRAM / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Enter the Dragon

    NASA astronauts and industry experts check out the crew accommodations in SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft. On top, from left, are NASA Crew Survival Engineering Team Lead Dustin Gohmert, NASA astronauts Tony Antonelli and Lee Archambault, and SpaceX Mission Operations Engineer Laura Crabtree. On bottom, from left, are SpaceX Thermal Engineer Brenda Hernandez and NASA astronauts Rex Walheim and Tim Kopra. The Dragon is being developed for NASA's use as a cargo carrier as well as a crew vehicle. (SpaceX) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Looking down at Luna

    This picture from NASA's Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, released March 14, shows Luna 17, the Soviet lander that carried the Lunokhod 1 rover to the surface in 1970. The debarking ramps for the rover are visible extending down to the surface to the right. Many rover tracks are visible around the lander. The inset picture provides a closeup look at Luna 17. (NASA/GSFC/ASU) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. The eye of Mars

    Radially oriented slope streaks paint stripes on the sides of this Martian crater in Arabia Terra. Slope streaks are common features on steep slopes in Mars' dusty terrain, but this crater is a particularly dramatic example. The picture was taken by the HiRISE camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and released on March 7. (NASA/JPL/University of Arizona) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Eclipse in space

    The moon came between NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory satellite and the sun, seen here in extreme ultraviolet light, on Feb. 28. SDO observed the partial solar eclipse for 1 hour and 41 minutes. (NASA/GSFC/SDO) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Greetings from Robonaut

    This fisheye-lens image, provided by NASA on March 13, shows the Robonaut 2 humanoid robot during a system checkout in the Destiny laboratory of the International Space Station. Teams on the ground commanded Robonaut through a series of dexterity tests as it spelled out "Hello World" in sign language. (NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Big and small moons

    Ice-covered Enceladus, a 300-mile-wide Saturnian moon, is dwarfed by 3,200-mile-wide Titan as well as the giant planet's rings in this March 12 picture from the Cassini orbiter. Titan, Saturn's largest moon, is covered by a brownish hydrocarbon-rich haze. (NASA/JPL/SSI/J. Major) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Fruits ... in ... space!

    Dutch astronaut Andre Kuipers clowns around with some zero-gravity fruit in the International Space Station's Unity node on Feb. 3. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Ghostly nebula

    Wispy tendrils of hot dust and gas are aglow in this ultraviolet image of the Cygnus Loop Nebula, taken by NASA's Galaxy Evolution Explorer and released March 22. The nebula, which lies about 1,500 light-years from Earth, is a supernova remnant left over from a massive stellar explosion that occurred 5,000 to 8,000 years earlier. The Cygnus Loop extends more than three times the size of the full moon in the night sky, and is tucked next to one of the wings of the "swan" in the constellation of Cygnus. (NASA/JPL-Caltech / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Mercury in perspective

    This color-coded perspective view shows elevations in the ancient volcanic plains that lie the northern high latitudes of Mercury, as revealed by NASA's Messenger spacecraft. Purple colors are low and white is high, spanning a vertical range of about 1.4 miles (2.3 kilometers). (NASA / JHUAPL / CIW-DTM / GSFC) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Stirring sight

    After a nearly ice-free winter, Lake Erie was filled with swirls of suspended sediment and algae on March 21. This view from NASA's Terra satellite shows swirls of sediment-rich water in the lake. As the shallowest of the Great Lakes, Erie’s bottom can be stirred up by strong spring winds and the currents they generate. (Jeff Schmaltz / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Dust devil caught on camera

    A towering dust devil casts a serpentine shadow on the Martian surface in this image, acquired by the HiRISE camera on NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter and released on March 7. Such whirlwinds often spin through the Martian landscape - but they're not often caught on camera. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Dubai's lights at night

    The city lights of Dubai sparkle at night in this photograph taken from the International Space Station on Feb. 22. Dubai is a popular photographic target for the space station's astronauts because of the artificial archipelagos that are located just offshore in the Persian Gulf. The palm-tree-shaped cluster of lights at bottom right is the Palm Jumeira complex, which is still under development. Isolated areas of blurred city lights are due to patchy clouds. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Celestial lanterns

    Two of the brightest planets in the night sky went through a series of conjunctions during late February and March. Jupiter is on the left and Venus is on the right in this picture, taken by Marek Nikodem of Szubin, Poland, at nightfall on March 12. "They are like two lanterns illuminating the darkness," Nikodem told SpaceWeather.com. "It's a wonderful sight." (Marek Nikodem) Back to slideshow navigation
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