NuSTAR opens its X-ray eye

By Phil Plait | July 15, 2012 6:59 am

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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CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, NASA, Pretty pictures

Comments (15)

Links to this Post

  1. [BLOG] Some Monday links « A Bit More Detail | July 16, 2012
  1. KAE

    Wow, what a Rush! (I may have used this joke before… Sorry.)

  2. Congrats NuStar! 8)

    Mind you as baby piccies go its pretty dark! ūüėČ

    PS. Apparently, in other good news, the latest crew to the International Space Station have launched suceessfully and are on their way. :-)

  3. Mount

    The X-ray is her siren song
    NuSTAR cannot resist her long…

  4. K

    Well…it went from several red pixels to one red pixel.

  5. Chris B.

    >Cygnus X-1 was the first black hole ever found, and is still the nearest one known.

    I have read that there is a closer black hole in Monoceros, 3,000 ly away, as opposed to 6,000 ly for Cygnus X-1.

  6. Daniel B

    @ K:

    Actually, if you take the time to click through to the NASA article describing the photo and then take a close look at the full scale image, you will see that it went from a 5×5 pixel grid to about a 80×80 pixel grid. Not too shabby and probably lots of use to the experts in the field.

  7. Tony

    Someone at JPL must be a Rush fan…

  8. Jonathan

    There’s one that’s been found that’s only 1,600ly away.

  9. F. Dufour


    It went from ~20 arc minutes across to less than one. That’s pretty awesome as far as I’m concerned.

    @Daniel B.:

    The detectors are 64×64. Not to far off from 80 (the image is assuredly background corrected and smoothed, though).

  10. JB of Brisbane

    Is there a connection, or just coincidence, that the vast spaceship in the movie “The Black Hole” was named the Cygnus?

  11. Captain Noble

    @JB of Brisbane

    From IMDB’s page: “Dr. Reinhardt’s ship was originally called the Centaurus. It was renamed Cygnus after the constellation where the first known black hole was discovered in 1964.”

  12. Don


    From the V4641 Sagittarii Wikipedia entry:

    Originally thought to be positioned approximately 1,600 light-years (100,000,000 AU) from Earth[1], later observations showed it to be at least 15 times farther away.

  13. Mike

    It’s going to get more exciting. As of this morning, all six orbiting X-ray telescopes (XMM, Swift, Chandra, Integral, Suzaku and NuStar) are pointing at the same object for a massive cross-calibration.

  14. F. Dufour

    Yep, that’s the calibration campaign on 3C273. Hopefully, that’s going to make the cross-calibration systematics better across all telescopes involved.


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