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Telescope Targets Black Holes' Binges And Burps

The NuSTAR telescope, seen in this artist's illustration, will soon be sending back data that researchers will use to study black holes. (NASA/JPL-Caltech)

NASA's newest space telescope will start searching the universe for black holes on Wednesday. Scientists hope the NuSTAR X-ray telescope, which launched about six weeks ago and is now flying about 350 miles above the Earth, will help shed some light on the mysteries of these space oddities.

Mission control for the telescope is a small room on the University of California, Berkeley, campus, where about a dozen people with headsets rarely look up from their screens.

Fiona Harrison, a professor of physics and astronomy at the California Institute of Technology, is the principal scientist for the mission. If there's one word that describes her past few weeks, it's "nail-biting," she says.

The beginning of a space telescope's life is particularly stressful. It has to be switched on remotely, including the unfurling of a 33-foot arm that will act like a giant telephoto lens.

Now, the $170 million telescope is just about ready to begin its hunt for black holes.

[Black holes] are sort of the Las Vegas of the universe. What happens in a black hole stays inside of a black hole. But on the outskirts of them, that is where there's tremendous action.
Joshua Bloom, associate professor of astronomy, University of California, Berkeley

"We're not actually seeing the black hole," Harrison says. "What you're actually seeing is the stuff that's attracted to it."

Harrison says they're called black holes because not even light can escape their gravity. But black holes aren't passive — they pull in tons of dust and gas. The material swirls around faster and faster, just like a bathtub drain, and gets hotter.

"The material is so hot that it radiates high-energy X-rays," she says, just like the ones doctors use. She says researchers observed them before, but it's like reading a book without your glasses.

"We know there's a story there, we know there's text, but we haven't been able to read the letters," she says.

With NuSTAR, they'll be able to see these X-rays at a higher resolution than ever before.

"It's incredibly exciting because we don't actually know what the text is going to say. And now we're going to be able to read it clearly for the first time," she says.

Harrison hopes the telescope will unlock some of the mysteries around black holes — like how they grow.

Eliot Quataert, an astronomy professor at UC Berkeley who is not on the mission staff, says black holes grow just like we do — by eating.

"They eat dramatically, but rarely," he says.

And at the very center of our galaxy, there's a super massive black hole that has eaten quite a bit. But we're still here.

"The misconception that's out there is that black holes are a vacuum cleaner that will inevitably suck in everything around them," Quataert says. For the most part, black holes are on a forced diet — they've already eaten everything close by.

"But then every once in a while, there will be a lot of gas that gets funneled to the center of a galaxy, and the black hole will grow in a big spurt," he says.

Quataert says seeing this black hole mealtime with the telescope could reveal more about the extreme physics behind it. That could answer questions about how galaxies form. UC Berkeley astronomer Joshua Bloom hopes NuSTAR will find another strange phenomenon: black hole burps.

"You can think about this black hole burping as if you're on a feeding frenzy and you can't fit that many hot dogs in your mouth," Bloom says.

Early last year, Bloom and other astronomers noticed a black hole devouring a star. The black hole spit out a huge jet of material — a burp. That might sound weird, since nothing can escape a black hole, right?

"These are sort of the Las Vegas of the universe. What happens in a black hole stays inside of a black hole. But on the outskirts of them, that is where there's tremendous action," he says.

Bloom says they're hoping to see more of these rare events and others that are still unknown to astronomers. The NuSTAR space telescope's mission is expected to last at least two years.

Copyright 2014 KQED Public Media. To see more, visit http://www.kqed.org.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

Tomorrow, NASA's newest space telescope will start searching the universe for black holes. The NuStar x-ray telescope launched about six weeks ago and is now flying about 350 miles above the Earth. Scientists on the ground here in California are hoping it will shed some light on the mysteries of these space oddities. From member station KQED, Lauren Sommer sent this report.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Instrument, PI, D-Mom on Mach-1, could you give us an instrument status please?

LAUREN SOMMER, BYLINE: Mission control for the telescope is a small room on the U.C. Berkeley campus, where about a dozen people with headsets rarely look up from their screens.

FIONA HARRISON: So, on the monitor over there, it shows the track of NuStar in its orbit.

SOMMER: Fiona Harrison of the California Institute of Technology is the principal scientist for the mission. If there's one word that describes her last few weeks, it's...

HARRISON: Nail-biting.

SOMMER: The beginning of a space telescope's life is particularly stressful. It has to be switched on remotely, including unfurling a 33-foot arm that will act like a giant telephoto lens. Now, the $170 million telescope is just about ready to begin its hunt for black holes.

HARRISON: Well, we're not actually seeing the black hole. What you're actually seeing is the stuff that's attracted to it.

SOMMER: Harrison says they're called black holes because not even light can escape their gravity. But black holes aren't passive. They pull in tons of dust and gas. The material swirls around faster and faster, just like a bathtub drain, and gets hotter.

HARRISON: The material is so hot that it radiates high energy X-rays.

SOMMER: X-rays just like the ones doctors use. Harrison says they've observed them before, but it's like reading a book without your glasses.

HARRISON: We know there's a story there. We know there's text. But we haven't been able to read the letters.

SOMMER: With NuStar, they'll be able to see these X-rays at a higher resolution than ever before.

HARRISON: It's incredibly exciting, because we don't actually know what the text is going to say. And now we're going to be able to read it clearly for the first time.

SOMMER: Which Harrison hopes will unlock some of the mysteries around black holes, like how they grow.

ELIOT QUATAERT: They eat dramatically, but rarely.

SOMMER: Eliot Quataert is an astronomy professor at UC, Berkeley, not on the mission staff. He says black holes grow just like we do - by eating. And at the very center of our galaxy, there's a super massive black hole that's eaten quite a bit. But we're still here.

QUATAERT: The kind of misconception that's out there is that black holes are a vacuum cleaner that will inevitably suck in everything around them.

SOMMER: For the most part, black holes are on a forced diet. They've already eaten everything close by.

QUATAERT: But then every once in a while, there will be a lot of gas that gets funneled to the center of a galaxy and the black hole will grow in kind of a big spurt.

SOMMER: Quataert says seeing this black hole mealtime with the telescope could reveal more about the extreme physics behind it. That could answer questions about how galaxies form.

UC, Berkeley astronomer Joshua Bloom hopes NuStar will find another strange phenomenon, black hole burps.

JOSHUA BLOOM: You can think about this black hole burping, right, as if you're on a feeding frenzy and you can't fit that many hot dogs in your mouth.

SOMMER: Early last year, Bloom and other astronomers noticed a black hole devouring a star. The black hole spit out a huge jet of material - a burp. That might sound weird. Nothing can escape a black hole, right?

BLOOM: You're right. These are the sort of the Las Vegas of the universe: What happens inside of a black hole stays inside of a black hole. But on the outskirts of them, that is where there's tremendous action.

SOMMER: Bloom says they're hoping to see more of these rare events and others that are still unknown to astronomers. The NuStar space telescope's mission is expected to last at least two years.

For NPR News, I'm Lauren Sommer in San Francisco.

MONTAGNE: And here's a new discovery about some decades-old space missions. Images taken by a NASA spacecraft reveal that some of the American flags planted during the Apollo missions to the Moon, in the 1960s and '70s, are still standing. Researchers say they can tell, because at some of the landing sites there are shadows on the Moon's surface. The principal investigator of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter Camera wrote on its Web site that he was surprised the flag survived the harsh ultraviolet light and temperatures of the lunar surface. He guesses the flags probably look badly faded.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MONTAGNE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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