Most of us, myself included, aren’t even aware that NASA has launched a spacecraft for the explicit purpose of hunting for black holes. Just knowing that NASA are doing this fills my (geeky) heart with glee. Even more exciting, NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR as it’s also called, has just found 10 absolutely massive black holes.
In case you’re wondering what this little beauty of a spacecraft looks like, the first thing to realize is that the mast is roughly the same size lengthwise as the bright yellow school bus you probably rode to school on. This telescope is able to use the very highest energy x-ray light and turn it into detailed photographs.
Happily for those of us fascinated by black holes, this latest find is just the first of most likely hundreds that will be detected within the next couple of years. These particular black holes lie in the middle of faraway galaxies that are somewhere around 0.3 to 11.4 billion light years from Earth. To break things down for you, just a single light year is equivalent to the distance of 5,865,696,000,000 miles away. So you can imagine how far away these particular black holes are and how amazing it is that NASA is able to capture them in photographs.
David Alexander, from the Department of Physics at Durham University in England and a member of the NuSTAR team said, We found the black holes serendipitously. We were looking at known targets and spotted the black holes in the background of the images.”
After the 10 black holes were found, older data that had been taken courtesy of NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory along with the European Space Agency’s XMM Newton Satellite were analysed. It was then discovered that these black holes had actually been spotted before, yet until the NuSTAR came along they hadn’t been cited as anything ultra-special. With the NuSTAR, however, they seemed quite different and this is when scientists decided to take a closer look.
By taking all of the observable evidence from the NuSTAR along with previous data, scientists hope to learn more about these and other black holes. Questions abound, such as just how many of them exist?
David Alexander said, “We are getting closer to solving a mystery that began in 1962. Back then, astronomers had noted a diffuse x-ray glow in the background of our sky but were unsure of its origin. Now we know that distance supermassive black holes are the sources of this light, but we need NuSTAR to help further detect and understand the black hole populations.”
When I was watching lectures available from MIT’s free Open Courseware I learned more about this diffuse x-ray glow which is also known as the cosmic x-ray background. Anybody who is interested in learning more about it should by all means head to MIT online where there is a wealthy of information about the cosmic x-ray background. The NuSTAR is able to see this background at its high-energy frequencies and now the goal is to figure out what’s producing the light, along with finding more of these black holes that have been buried under walls of gas.
Stay tuned for more discoveries by the NuSTAR!