A powerful telescope array is headed for space today. Its starting point wasn't a Cape Canaveral launch pad, but rather a plane that took off from Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands in the central Pacific Ocean.
NuSTAR began its launch process today just after 12 p.m. EST. NuSTAR stands for Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array.
NuSTAR, with its specialized "X-ray eyes," has 10 times the resolution and 100 times the sensitivity of similar telescopes. It has the capability to study black holes and explore how exploding stars form the elements from which the universe is composed.
This was a plane-assisted launch, which is less expensive than the dramatic liftoffs from the ground. From the air, less fuel is required to help the goods escape Earth's gravitational pull.
An Orbital Science Corporation L-1011 "Stargazer" plane flew over the Pacific Ocean carrying a Pegasus XL rocket. The rocket dropped from the plane and then ignited and propelled the telescope array. Here's a video from NASA of a previous Pegasus launch.
The rocket's first-stage motor burned for 70 seconds before dropping away, and then the second-stage motor started burning. Meanwhile, the nose cone with NuSTAR in it released.
The telescope array separated from the rocket's third stage about 13 minutes after being released from the plane. After separation and successful entrance into orbit, NuSTAR's solar arrays were deployed.
In about a week the NuSTAR will deploy a 33-foot boom, which will allow for X-ray light to be focused into sharp images. The boom is long because the mirrors and the detectors need to be far apart in order to focus X-ray light - sort of like if a face and eyeglasses were separated by a few feet.
The science operational stuff will start about 30 days after NuSTAR launches, NASA said.
The next mission on Pegasus will be the IRIS mission, scheduled for the early part of 2013. Scientists hope IRIS will provide insights into the workings of the sun.