NASA
An artist's concept of NuSTAR on orbit. 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 6/13/2012 12:48:27 PM ET 2012-06-13T16:48:27

NASA's newest space telescope, an ambitious X-ray observatory, was launched into orbit on Wednesday to peer deep into the universe and study the violent regions around black holes.

The Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, was launched spaceward at the tip of an Orbital Sciences Pegasus XL rocket, which itself was carried into launch position by a high-altitude L-1011 "Stargazer" jet aircraft. At noon ET, the plane dropped the rocket in midflight, and the booster fired its engines for its climb into the sky.

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"Today was a great day for NuSTAR, a great day for Pegasus, a great day for the entire launch team," Tim Dunn, NASA's assistant launch director, said after the liftoff. "We thank Orbital Sciences for the ride, and we're ready to get into the science portion of the mission."

Blastoff occurred about 117 nautical miles south of the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. Originally scheduled for 11:30 a.m. ET, the launch was delayed 30 minutes to allow technicians to resolve a minor technical issue.

The $165 million NuSTAR observatory is beginning a two-year mission to probe high-energy regions of the universe, including black holes and the remnants of stars that died in supernova explosions. It will use a telescope sensitive to regions of the X-ray spectrum of light that are higher in energy than those seen by any space observatory before it. [Gallery: NASA's Black Hole-Hunting Telescope]

"With NuSTAR, we'll be able to image the sky, read the story and understand things like how galaxies form, and how black holes grow," the NuSTAR mission's principal investigator, Fiona Harrison of Caltech, said during a Monday press briefing. "It will pinpoint these massive black holes and locate them within galaxies."

About a week from now, NuSTAR will extend a 33-foot (10-meter) mast that will separate the spacecraft's optics from a focal point where a camera is placed, making the whole instrument roughly the size of a school bus. The telescope uses two optics units made of 133 nested layers of glass each, which will collect X-ray light and deflect it to the focal point at the mast's other end.

One of the telescope's first targets will be a well-known black hole close to home.

"One of the first things we'll look at is Cygnus X-1, a black hole in our own galaxy, which acts as a perfect point source for us to check how crisp our images are," said William Craig, NuSTAR instrument manager at the University of California at Berkeley.

NuSTAR also plans to study the center of our Milky Way galaxy, where a supermassive black hole containing the mass of 4 million suns is thought to reside. A number of fuzzy light sources at the galaxy's center suggest the presence of this black hole, but details on them are scant.

NuSTAR will "give us both the energy and location of all these sources, allowing us to really probe in the high energy into the physics of the objects that are at the galactic center," Craig said. "It opens up a new window into the high-energy universe."

Follow Clara Moskowitz on Twitter @ClaraMoskowitz or Space.com @Spacedotcom. We're also on Facebook and Google+.

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Photos: Month in Space: January 2014

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  1. Southern stargazing

    Stars, galaxies and nebulas dot the skies over the European Southern Observatory's La Silla Paranal Observatory in Chile, in a picture released on Jan. 7. This image also shows three of the four movable units that feed light into the Very Large Telescope Interferometer, the world's most advanced optical instrument. Combining to form one larger telescope, they are greater than the sum of their parts: They reveal details that would otherwise be visible only through a telescope as large as the distance between them. (Y. Beletsky / ESO) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A balloon's view

    Cameras captured the Grandville High School RoboDawgs' balloon floating through Earth's upper atmosphere during its ascent on Dec. 28, 2013. The Grandville RoboDawgs’ first winter balloon launch reached an estimated altitude of 130,000 feet, or about 25 miles, according to coaches Mike Evele and Doug Hepfer. It skyrocketed past the team’s previous 100,000-feet record set in June. The RoboDawgs started with just one robotics team in 1998, but they've grown to support more than 30 teams at public schools in Grandville, Mich. (Kyle Moroney / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Spacemen at work

    Russian cosmonauts Oleg Kotov, right, and Sergey Ryazanskiy perform maintenance on the International Space Station on Jan. 27. During the six-hour, eight-minute spacewalk, Kotov and Ryazanskiy completed the installation of a pair of high-fidelity cameras that experienced connectivity issues during a Dec. 27 spacewalk. The cosmonauts also retrieved scientific gear outside the station's Russian segment. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Special delivery

    The International Space Station's Canadian-built robotic arm moves toward Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Cygnus autonomous cargo craft as it approaches the station for a Jan. 12 delivery. The mountains below are the southwestern Alps. (NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Accidental art

    A piece of art? A time-lapse photo? A flickering light show? At first glance, this image looks nothing like the images we're used to seeing from the Hubble Space Telescope. But it's a genuine Hubble frame that was released on Jan. 27. Hubble's team suspects that the telescope's Fine Guidance System locked onto a bad guide star, potentially a double star or binary. This caused an error in the tracking system, resulting in a remarkable picture of brightly colored stellar streaks. The prominent red streaks are from stars in the globular cluster NGC 288. (NASA / ESA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Supersonic test flight

    A camera looking back over Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo's fuselage shows the rocket burn with a Mojave Desert vista in the background during a test flight of the rocket plane on Jan. 10. Cameras were mounted on the exterior of SpaceShipTwo as well as its carrier airplane, WhiteKnightTwo, to monitor the rocket engine's performance. The test was aimed at setting the stage for honest-to-goodness flights into outer space later this year, and eventual commercial space tours.

    More about SpaceShipTwo on PhotoBlog (Virgin Galactic) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Red lagoon

    The VLT Survey Telescope at the European Southern Observatory's Paranal Observatory in Chile captured this richly detailed new image of the Lagoon Nebula, released on Jan. 22. This giant cloud of gas and dust is creating intensely bright young stars, and is home to young stellar clusters. This image is a tiny part of just one of 11 public surveys of the sky now in progress using ESO telescopes. (ESO/VPHAS team) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Fire on the mountain

    This image provided by NASA shows a satellite view of smoke from the Colby Fire, taken by the Multi-angle Imaging SpectroRadiometer aboard NASA's Terra spacecraft as it passed over Southern California on Jan. 16. The fire burned more than 1,863 acres and forced the evacuation of 3,700 people. (NASA via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Where stars are born

    An image captured by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope shows the Orion Nebula, an immense stellar nursery some 1,500 light-years away. This false-color infrared view, released on Jan. 15, spans about 40 light-years across the region. The brightest portion of the nebula is centered on Orion's young, massive, hot stars, known as the Trapezium Cluster. But Spitzer also can detect stars still in the process of formation, seen here in red hues. (NASA / JPL-Caltech) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Cygnus takes flight

    Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket rises from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va, on Jan. 9. The rocket sent Orbital's Cygnus cargo capsule on its first official resupply mission to the International Space Station. (Chris Perry / NASA) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. A long, long time ago...

    This long-exposure picture from the Hubble Space Telescope, released Jan. 8, is the deepest image ever made of any cluster of galaxies. The cluster known as Abell 2744 appears in the foreground. It contains several hundred galaxies as they looked 3.5 billion years ago. Abell 2744 acts as a gravitational lens to warp space, brightening and magnifying images of nearly 3,000 distant background galaxies. The more distant galaxies appear as they did more than 12 billion years ago, not long after the Big Bang. (NASA / NASA via AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Frosty halo

    Sun dogs are bright spots that appear in the sky around the sun when light is refracted through ice crystals in the atmosphere. These sun dogs appeared on Jan. 5 amid brutally cold temperatures along Highway 83, north of Bismarck, N.D. The temperature was about 22 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, with a 50-below-zero wind chill.

    Slideshow: The Year in Space (Brian Peterson / The Bismarck Tribune via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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