Science

Blazing black holes: NuSTAR provides a fresh view of the Universe

Blazing black holes: NuSTAR pr...
Black holes blaze magenta in this NuStar photo of spiral galaxy IC342 (Photo: NASA)
Black holes blaze magenta in this NuStar photo of spiral galaxy IC342 (Photo: NASA)
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Black holes blaze magenta in this NuStar photo of spiral galaxy IC342 (Photo: NASA)
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Black holes blaze magenta in this NuStar photo of spiral galaxy IC342 (Photo: NASA)
Paired images of spiral galaxy IC342, On the left is the NuSTAR high-energy x-ray image, while on the right is an optical image taken at Kitt Peak (Photo: NASA and T. Rector (U. Alaska Anchorage), H. Schweiker, WIYN, NOAO, AURA, NSF)
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Paired images of spiral galaxy IC342, On the left is the NuSTAR high-energy x-ray image, while on the right is an optical image taken at Kitt Peak (Photo: NASA and T. Rector (U. Alaska Anchorage), H. Schweiker, WIYN, NOAO, AURA, NSF)
The NuSTAR high-energy x-ray image of IC342 (Photo: NASA)
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The NuSTAR high-energy x-ray image of IC342 (Photo: NASA)
Artist's concept of NuSTAR on orbit. NuSTAR has a 10 m (30 ft) mast that deploys after launch to separate the optics modules (right) from the detectors in the focal plane (left). NuSTAR has two identical optics modules in order to increase sensitivity (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
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Artist's concept of NuSTAR on orbit. NuSTAR has a 10 m (30 ft) mast that deploys after launch to separate the optics modules (right) from the detectors in the focal plane (left). NuSTAR has two identical optics modules in order to increase sensitivity (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
NuSTAR's launch sequence - orbit was reached using an air-launched Orbital Sciences PegasusXL (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
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NuSTAR's launch sequence - orbit was reached using an air-launched Orbital Sciences PegasusXL (Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Unlike the low resolution ESA INTEGRAL hard x-ray image on the upper left, NuSTAR (lower right) is able to identify individual black holes making up the diffuse X-ray glow, also called the X-ray background. The observatory has 100 times better sensitivity than its predecessors, and 15 times sharper resolution (Photo: ESA/NASA/JPL-Caltech)
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Unlike the low resolution ESA INTEGRAL hard x-ray image on the upper left, NuSTAR (lower right) is able to identify individual black holes making up the diffuse X-ray glow, also called the X-ray background. The observatory has 100 times better sensitivity than its predecessors, and 15 times sharper resolution (Photo: ESA/NASA/JPL-Caltech)
NuSTAR images of the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy showing flares as the black hole consumes and heats matter to temperatures up to 180 million F (100 million C) (Photo: NASA/ JPL-Caltech)
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NuSTAR images of the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy showing flares as the black hole consumes and heats matter to temperatures up to 180 million F (100 million C) (Photo: NASA/ JPL-Caltech)
Two views of the hard x-ray focusing mirrors that form the primary optics for NuSTAR (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
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Two views of the hard x-ray focusing mirrors that form the primary optics for NuSTAR (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Artist's impression of a black hole in the process of taking in surrounding gas and dust (Photo: NASA)
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Artist's impression of a black hole in the process of taking in surrounding gas and dust (Photo: NASA)
Grazing-incidence optics gently redirect oncoming light by glancing from slightly curved sheets of coated glass (Image: B. Dodson)
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Grazing-incidence optics gently redirect oncoming light by glancing from slightly curved sheets of coated glass (Image: B. Dodson)
One of four CdZnTe detectors installed on the focal plane sensor electronics board (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
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One of four CdZnTe detectors installed on the focal plane sensor electronics board (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Black holes, which abound in the Universe, convert matter into geometry – the larger the amount of matter that disappears through the event horizon, the larger they grow, with the only external sign of their presence being the warping of space due to their gravity. In the process, a great deal of extremely hot gas is generated, and that gas emits hard x-rays. Now NASA's NuSTAR space telescope can find black holes by forming high-resolution images of the cosmos in hard x-rays.

NuSTAR (standing for Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope ARray), is a NASA Small Explorer Program satellite launched in 2012. Such satellites are intended to perform research at the edge of new technologies for relatively small (less than US$120 million) expenditures. NuSTAR is the only orbiting telescope capable of taking high resolution images using the "light" of hard x-rays – those penetrating x-rays having energies greater than about 10-15 keV. For comparison, a dental x-ray unit generates x-rays with average energies of about 20-30 keV.

The best previous performance in hard x-rays was given by the European Space Agency's INTEGRAL spacecraft, whose "optics" were those of a pinhole camera, resulting in low resolution and low sensitivity.

Artist's concept of NuSTAR on orbit. NuSTAR has a 10 m (30 ft) mast that deploys after launch to separate the optics modules (right) from the detectors in the focal plane (left). NuSTAR has two identical optics modules in order to increase sensitivity (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Artist's concept of NuSTAR on orbit. NuSTAR has a 10 m (30 ft) mast that deploys after launch to separate the optics modules (right) from the detectors in the focal plane (left). NuSTAR has two identical optics modules in order to increase sensitivity (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

In contrast, NuSTAR was given a double x-ray telescope including optics that focus hard x-rays up to energies of 80 keV into a relatively high resolution image – showing about 15 times greater detail than did Integral. Because the image is formed by focusing x-rays from an aperture onto a point, the sensitivity of NuSTAR's optics is roughly 100 times better than those of INTEGRAL.

The lead picture shows spiral galaxy IC 342, including hard x-ray data from NuSTAR. The two magenta spots are blazing black holes which appear much brighter than typical stellar-mass black holes, such as those that pepper our own galaxy. However, they cannot be supermassive black holes or they would have migrated to the galaxy’s center. Instead, they may be intermediate in mass, or there may be something else going on to explain their extremely energetic state. Additional NuSTAR images and details appear in the image gallery.

How it works

Hard x-rays are mainly known for penetrating and being absorbed by matter. How did NuSTAR's designers equip the satellite with a practical system of x-ray optics?

Grazing-incidence optics gently redirect oncoming light by glancing from slightly curved sheets of coated glass (Image: B. Dodson)
Grazing-incidence optics gently redirect oncoming light by glancing from slightly curved sheets of coated glass (Image: B. Dodson)

When an x-ray strikes a flat surface at a sufficiently shallow angle, it will not penetrate the material, but rather will be reflected as in a normal mirror. This in itself will not result in forming an image. However, if a series of surfaces which are ever so slightly parabolic or hyperbolic in shape are arranged concentrically about the desired optical axis of a telescope, incident x-rays which are parallel will be focused on an image plane, as shown in the picture above.

Two views of the hard x-ray focusing mirrors that form the primary optics for NuSTAR (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
Two views of the hard x-ray focusing mirrors that form the primary optics for NuSTAR (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

The x-ray imaging optics of NuSTAR consist of 4680 individual mirror segments arranged in 133 concentric mirror shells. The mirror segments are coated with Pt/SiC and W/Si multilayers. Both sets of optics were built from the inside out with individual shells separated by graphite spacers held together only by epoxy.

One of four CdZnTe detectors installed on the focal plane sensor electronics board (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech)
One of four CdZnTe detectors installed on the focal plane sensor electronics board (Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NuSTAR's x-ray detectors are also special. Each focal plane detector system has four 32x32 pixel cadmium zinc telluride (CdZnTe) hybrid detectors which plug into a common board, giving a 64x64 pixel image. CdZnTe detectors are being developed for a host of hard x-ray and gamma detection applications. Each pixel is 0.6 mm on a side, leading to detectors which measure 2.0 cm on a side. The active size of the camera is 4x4 cm in size, corresponding to a 12 arcminute field of view – about 20 percent of the area of the full moon. The image is somewhat coarser than the detector system, with a full width at half maximum spot diameter of about 15 arcseconds, or about the size of Saturn's globe.

NuSTAR is providing a view of the Universe that is almost completely new to astronomers. Many more discoveries are likely to follow during NuSTAR's 18-month mission.

Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

3 comments
Max Kennedy
Hmm, perhaps nitpicking but is it appropriate to say that black holes grow larger as a singularity is a point? They certainly get heavier and the field of influence of their gravity grows but does the black hole itself?
Scott Kent
If you want to be that nitpicky then... With out a theory of Quantum Gravity it is of my understanding that you really can not say what happens beyond the even horizon so you can not even prove that a spacial singularity exists, just infer it. So maybe you can think of the forces that create the event horizon not unlike those that make up a star's outer layers. In this sense the event horizon can be considered part of the black hole and thus included to some degree in measuring its size.
Expanded Viewpoint
How big is a black hole? Are they all the same physical size (supposing that you could whip out some special calipers to measure them with), and the amount of gravitational influence (event horizon distance) is all that changes due to how much matter was absorbed into the single point in space? If there are different sizes of black holes, then how big can one of them get before reaching some kind of critical mass and blowing up or doing something else? Or does all atomic motion in them cease? Also, are black holes infinitely hot due to the fact that no energy is supposed to be able to escape them, or are they infinitely cold because there is no molecular motion in them due to compression from the immense amount of gravity? Just askin' is all.