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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

NuSTAR opens its X-ray eye

By Phil Plait

Sorry I didn't post this when it happened, but some good news: In late June, NASA's NuSTAR X-ray observatory saw first light! This is the traditional moment when a telescope first opens up its eye and sees light from the external Universe. It's like a baby-naming ceremony for astronomers.

Here's the bouncing baby black hole they looked at:

Cygnus X-1 was the first black hole ever found, and is still the nearest one known. It orbits a hot, massive star, and is sucking down matter from that star. As the material falls in, it forms a big flat disk that gets incredibly hot just above the Point of No Return. Really hot things like this emit X-rays, and Cyg X-1 is one of the brightest in the sky. So historically as well as practically it was a good choice for NuSTAR's first light.

In the diagram above, the left part shows where the black hole is in the constellation of Cygnus. On the upper right is an X-ray image of Cyg X-1 from the European INTEGRAL spacecraft, and below it the shot from NuSTAR. As you can see, the resolution of NuSTAR is much higher, which is kinda the reason it was built.

NuSTAR, by the way, is short for NUclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, and it launched into space in June 2012. I'll note that in an earlier post I included some of the history of this star-crossed spacecraft that a lot of folks might not know about. I was involved in this mission literally from the start (developing the education and public outreach effort for it) so to me this isn't just some story, it's personal.

Remember, you see these pictures from space taken by fancy observatories, but there's a deep and usually very rich history behind them. When you see something you like, dig deeper. You may find the story adds to the experience of learning about the astronomy itself.

Image credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech; A. Hobart, CXC

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