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Science

NuSTAR: Here's How NASA Plans to Hunt Down Supermassive Black Holes, Take Amazing Pics

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Wed, Jun 13, 2012 at 12:30 PM
click to enlarge Good luck out there, little one. - JPL VIA YOUTUBE
  • JPL via YouTube
  • Good luck out there, little one.

Of all the giant incomprehensible mysteries floating beyond our own teensy planet in outer space, there's one that reigns supreme: The matter-gobbling black hole, a monster trachea that promises to eat all your space friends and make them disappear forever. (Or, as defined by one NASA astrophysicist, "a geometric point, with effectively infinite density." And actually, to further explode your little Earthling brain, the astrophysicist adds that "the whole Universe is one big black hole with us on the inside." Great.)

However, the launch of the NuSTAR "black-hole hunter" into space today...

... hopes to ground your nightmares with some facts -- and some amazing pics.

The telescope, which uses special X-ray vision to "penetrate interstellar dust and gas to capture light," will be manned by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), pride of Pasadena.

click to enlarge A Stargazer plane like the one that launched NuSTAR around 9 a.m. - JPL
  • JPL
  • A Stargazer plane like the one that launched NuSTAR around 9 a.m.

NuSTAR saw a pretty extravagant launch this morning from the middle of the Pacific: The precious piece of equipment was stuffed inside a rocket, carried into the sky by a carrier plane and shot into the atmosphere at 39,000 feet. The rocket burned off about 15 minutes later, and NuSTAR was on its own.

These are the crime scenes it hopes to capture, via JPL:

"Supermassive black holes, weighing millions to billions times more than the sun, lurk in the centers of most galaxies. These hefty monsters lie quietly until an unsuspecting victim, such as a star, wanders close enough to get ripped apart by their powerful gravitational clutches."

The L.A.-area lab has already been gathering some breathtaking black-hole shots via Earthbound telescopes -- like this "stellar homicide" in May -- but NuSTAR will be able to get much closer to its subjects, and capture previously unseen patterns of light. (Specifically, the X-ray region of the electromagnetic spectrum.)

In this way, NASA hopes to find out "how black holes are distributed throughout the cosmos, how the elements were forged in the explosions of massive stars, and what powers the most extreme active galaxies."

Still scary, but so awesome we can't help but peek from under the covers. Track the entire NuSTAR mission here.

[@simone_electra / swilson@laweekly.com / @LAWeeklyNews]

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