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NASA poised to launch new 'black hole hunter'

WASHINGTON -- NASA is poised to launch on Wednesday a sophisticated orbiting telescope that uses high-energy X-ray vision to hunt for black holes in the universe.

The Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) will first be carried into the skies by a jet which will deploy a rocket that sends the satellite into space, NASA said.

“Why launch from the air? Plane-assisted launches are less expensive than those that take place from the ground. Less fuel is needed to boost cargo away from the pull of Earth's gravity,” the U.S. space agency said in a statement.

The project aims to study energetic phenomena such as black holes and the explosions of massive stars.

Orbital Sciences Corporation designed and manufactured the telescope and will send it into orbit from its own Pegasus air-launched rocket, which is attached to the underside of the company's L-1011 Stargazer aircraft.

The jet will take off from Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands about an hour before the launch itself at 11:30 a.m. Eastern (1530 GMT). Orbital said it would be the 41st Pegasus mission since its introduction in 1990.

“NuSTAR will open a whole new window on the universe,” said Fiona Harrison, who is a professor at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena and is the principal investigator on NuSTAR.

It will be the “first telescope to focus high energy X-rays. As such it will make images that are 10 times crisper and 100 times more sensitive than any telescope that has operated in this region of the spectrum.”

The observatory is designed to launch on a rocket from underneath the belly of an aircraft. Both the Pegasus XL rocket and the L-1011 Stargazer aircraft are made by Orbital Sciences Corporation.

The mission aims to work in concert with other telescopes in space, including NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, which observes lower-energy X-rays, NASA said.

NuSTAR is more potent than its predecessors because of the way it focuses high-energy X-ray light by using nested shells of mirrors to prevent the light from reflecting off.

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