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NASA’s NuSTAR mission celebrates ten years studying the X-ray universe

NASA's NuSTAR Mission Celebrates 10 Years of Studying the X-ray Universe

NASA’s NuSTAR space telescope, shown in this illustration, has two main components separated by a 30-foot (10-meter) mast, known as a boom. The light is collected at one end of the mast and is focused along its entire length before hitting the detectors at the other end. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

After a decade of observing some of the hottest, densest and most energetic regions in our universe, this small but powerful space telescope has even more to see.

NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) turns 10 years old. Launched on June 13, 2012, this space telescope detects high-energy X-ray light and studies some of the most energetic objects and processes in the universe, from black holes that devour hot gas to the radioactive remains of exploded stars. Here are some of the ways NuSTAR has opened our eyes to the X-ray universe over the past decade.

See X-rays close to home

Different colors of visible light have different wavelengths and different energies; in the same way, there is a series of X-ray light or light waves of higher energies than human eyes can detect. NuSTAR detects X-rays at the higher end of the range. Not many objects in our solar system emit the X-rays that NuSTAR can detect, but the Sun does: Its high-energy X-rays come from microflares, or tiny bursts of particles and light on its surface. NuSTAR’s observations contribute to insights into the formation of larger flares, which can cause damage to astronauts and satellites. These studies could also help scientists explain why the outermost region of the sun, the corona, is many times hotter than its surface. NuSTAR also recently observed high-energy X-rays emanating from Jupiter, solving a decades-old mystery about why they went undetected in the past.

NASA's NuSTAR Mission Celebrates 10 Years of Studying the X-ray Universe

X-rays from the sun — seen in the green and blue observations by NASA’s NuSTAR — come from gas heated to more than 5.4 million degrees Fahrenheit (3 million degrees Celsius). Data taken by NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory, shown in orange, shows material around 1.8 million F (1 million C). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/GSFC

Illuminating black holes

Black holes don’t emit light, but some of the largest we know of are surrounded by disks of hot gas that glow in many different wavelengths of light. NuSTAR can show scientists what happens to the material closest to the black hole, revealing how black holes produce bright flares and jets of hot gas that extend thousands of light-years into space. The mission has measured temperature variations in black hole winds that affect star formation in the rest of the galaxy. Recently, the Event Horizon Telescope (EHT) took the first-ever direct images of black hole shadows, and NuSTAR provided support. Along with other NASA telescopes, NuSTAR monitored the black holes for flares and changes in brightness that would affect EHT’s ability to image the shadows they cast.

One of NuSTAR’s greatest achievements in this area was making the first unambiguous measurement of the rotation of a black hole, which it did in collaboration with the ESA (European Space Agency) XMM-Newton mission. Spin is the degree to which a black hole’s intense gravity distorts the space around it, and the measurement helped confirm aspects of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

Finding Hidden Black Holes

NuSTAR has identified dozens of black holes hidden behind thick clouds of gas and dust. Visible light usually cannot penetrate those clouds, but the high-energy X-ray light seen by NuSTAR can. This gives scientists a better estimate of the total number of black holes in the universe. In recent years, scientists have used NuSTAR data to find out how these giants are surrounded by such thick clouds, how that process affects their development, and how eclipse compares to a black hole’s impact on the surrounding galaxy.

NASA's NuSTAR Mission Celebrates 10 Years of Studying the X-ray Universe

This image shows a black hole surrounded by an accretion disk made of hot gas, with a jet extending into space. NASA’s NuSTAR telescope has helped measure how far particles travel in these jets before they “turn on” and become bright sources of light, a distance known as the “acceleration zone.” Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Revealing the power of ‘undead’ stars

NuSTAR is a kind of zombie hunter: he is adept at finding the undead corpses of stars. Known as neutron stars, these stars are dense clumps of material left over after a massive star runs out of fuel and collapses. Although neutron stars are typically only the size of a major city, they are so dense that a teaspoon of one on Earth would weigh about a billion tons. Their density, combined with their powerful magnetic fields, makes these objects extremely energetic: a neutron star in the galaxy M82 radiates with the energy of 10 million suns.

Without NuSTAR, scientists would not have discovered how energetic neutron stars can be. When the object in M82 was discovered, researchers believed that only a black hole could generate so much energy from such a small area. NuSTAR was able to confirm the object’s true identity by detecting pulsations from the star’s rotation — and has since shown that many of these ultra-luminous X-ray sources, previously thought to be black holes, are in fact neutron stars. Knowing how much energy these can produce has helped scientists better understand their physical properties, which are unlike anything found in our solar system.

Solving Supernova Mysteries

During their lifetime, stars are usually spherical, but NuSTAR observations have shown that when they explode as supernovas, they become an asymmetrical mess. The space telescope solved a great mystery in the study of supernovae by mapping the radioactive material left over from two stellar explosions, tracing the shape of the debris and revealing significant deviations from a spherical shape in both cases. Thanks to NuSTAR’s X-ray vision, astronomers now have clues about what’s happening in an environment that is nearly impossible to investigate directly. The NuSTAR observations suggest that a star’s inner regions are extremely turbulent at the time of detonation.

NASA’s NuSTAR makes illuminating discoveries with ‘nuisance’ light

Provided by Jet Propulsion Laboratory

Quote: NASA’s NuSTAR mission celebrates ten years of study of the X-ray universe (2022, June 10) retrieved June 10, 2022 from https://phys.org/news/2022-06-nasa-nustar-mission-celebrates-ten.html

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