The Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) is a high-energy X-ray space telescope that will expand our understanding of the origins and the development of stars and galaxies.
NuSTAR was proposed to NASA in May 2003. In 2006, while NuSTAR was undergoing an extended feasibility study, NASA cancelled the program due to budgetary constraints. However, in September 2007, the program was restarted.
In 2007, Orbital Sciences Corporation was selected by NASA to design, manufacture, and test the NuSTAR telescope.
The spacecraft is based on a proven design, used by Orbital for other NASA Small Explorer missions: SORGE, GALEX, AIM, and OCO. NuSTAR will have a launch mass of 360 kg, and will be powered by articulated solar arrays providing 600 W.
The spacecraft incorporates a ten-meter long extendable mast. The mast allows the telescope to fit into a small launch vehicle.
The technology used to build the telescope is not new. A team of researchers, led by Dr. Fiona Harrison, professor of physics and astronomy at Caltech, has been improving the NuSTAR technology for the last ten years. A previous high energy X-ray telescope (High Energy Focusing Telescope or HEFT) was developed as part of a high altitude balloon payload.
The currently operational X-ray telescopes, Chandra and XMM-Newton, observe the sky in the low energy X-ray spectrum (X-ray energies less than 10 keV). NuSTAR will make observations in a higher range, up to 79 keV. As much of the energy emitted by a black hole is absorbed by the surrounding gas and dust, observations in the high-energy X-ray spectrum can reveal in greater detail what is happening closer to the event horizon.
The NuSTAR telescope will have a sensitivity two orders of magnitude greater than any other instrument used to detect black holes. NuSTAR will help scientists understand how black holes are distributed throughout the universe, and what powers the most active galaxies.
The NuSTAR instrument consists of two co-aligned hard X-ray telescopes. The ten-meter mast mentioned above separates the mirrors and the imaging detectors. The detectors are Cadmium Zinc Telluride (CdZnTe) detectors and do not require cryogenic operation.
On February 9, 2009, NASA awarded Orbital the launch services contract for the NuSTAR mission. The telescope will be launched in 2011 aboard a Pegasus XL launch vehicle. Pegasus XL will be carried beneath a L-1011 aircraft and released over the Pacific Ocean. The air-launch system is very cost-effective, providing flexibility during operation and requiring minimal ground support.
NuSTAR will be deployed into a 525×525 km low Earth orbit (LEO) with a twenty-seven degree inclination.