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NuSTAR spots the brilliant glow of two black holes lurking inside spiral galaxy

NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, recently spotted the glow of two black holes lurking inside a spiral galaxy.

The new view had NASA scientists jumping for joy over NuSTAR’s capabilities.

“These new images showcase why NuSTAR is giving us an unprecedented look at the cosmos,” said Lou Kaluzienski, NuSTAR program scientist at NASA, in a statement. “With NuSTAR’s greater sensitivity and imaging capability, we’re getting a wealth of new information on a wide array of cosmic phenomena in the high-energy X-ray portion of the electromagnetic spectrum.”

According to the space agency, NuSTAR is the first orbiting telescope with the ability to focus high-energy X-ray light. It can spot objects in much greater detail than previous missions operating at similar wavelengths. The NuSTAR team continues to make adjustments to the telescope, which has a mast the length of a school bus connecting the mirrors and detectors.

Here is a brief explanation of NuSTAR’s deployable mast.

NuSTAR has already spotted numerous black holes and the extremely dense cores of dead stars. The satellite has recently started the search for black holes in the inner region of the Milky Way galaxy.

One of NuSTAR’s targets is the spiral galaxy IC 342, also known as Caldwell 5. Previous X-ray observations of this galaxy, which lies 7 million light-years away in the constellation Camelopardalis, has revealed the presence of two brilliantly glowing black holes.

Scientists are still trying to figure out why these black holes are so bright. According to astronomers, they are more than 10 times brighter than the stellar-mass black holes scattered among the stars in our own galaxy. Astronomers believe that these black holes, known as ultraluminous X-ray sources (ULXs), could be intermediate-mass black holes, smaller stellar-mass black holes or something completely different.

“High-energy X-rays hold a key to unlocking the mystery surrounding these objects,” said Fiona Harrison, NuSTAR principal investigator at Caltech, in a statement. “Whether they are massive black holes, or there is new physics in how they feed, the answer is going to be fascinating.”

In the image above, the two bright spots that look caught in the spiral galaxy are the black holes. Scientists translated the high-energy X-ray light into the color magenta.

“Before NuSTAR, high-energy X-ray pictures of this galaxy and the two black holes would be so fuzzy that everything would appear as one pixel,” said Ms. Harrison.

According to Caltech, NuSTAR launched on June 13, 2012. During a two-year primary mission phase, NuSTAR has been given the following tasks to complete: Take a census of collapsed stars and black holes by examining regions surrounding the center of our Milky Way Galaxy in addition to deep observations of the extragalactic sky, map recently-synthesized material in young supernova remnants and examine what powers relativistic jets of particles from the most extreme active galaxies housing supermassive black holes.

NuSTAR performs follow-up observations to findings made by the Chandra and Spitzer space telescopes.

Pictures of spiral galaxy IC 342 and supernova remnant Cassiopeia A can be viewed here.