DURHAM University is heading for the stars today.
It has played a vital role in a revolutionary Nasa-led mission to improve our understanding of the universe.
The $170million NuStar observatory satellite, sensitive to the detection of high-energy x-ray photons, will investigate the origin of x-rays radiating from the cosmos as one of its key scientific missions.
Professor David Alexander, from Durham’s Physics Department, is co-ordinating development of a vital component of the project.
“The x-ray background is made up of x-rays that reach the Earth from all directions within the cosmos,” he said.
“Despite being first discovered in 1962, astronomers are still not entirely sure what produces this cosmic x-ray noise, with possible candidates ranging from growing black holes to yet undiscovered exotic objects.”
The key technological advance that will allow NuStar to resolve this decades-long mystery is its mirrors.
They have a special coating that will allow scientists to accurately focus high-energy x-ray photons from space for the first time.
Dr James Mullaney, a researcher at Durham University working with Professor Alexander, said: “It is as though we were previously trying to read a book without our glasses.
“You can see that there is text, but can’t make out the individual letters.
“Currently, we can only make out two per cent of this cosmic text.
“With NuStar, we will be able to make out the majority of the story, dramatically improving our understanding of black-hole growth and the history of the high-energy universe.”
NuStar will also study the remnants of supernovae, stars that have exploded within our galaxy and galaxy clusters.
Galaxy clusters are some of the largest structures in the known universe and are believed to be held together by dark matter – a mysterious substance thought to account for 85 per cent of matter in the universe.
NuStar is due to launch no earlier than 4.30pm today, from Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.
The spacecraft will lift off on an Orbital Sciences Pegasus XL launch vehicle, released from an aircraft flying south of Kwajalein.
The satellite, orbiting the Earth at an altitude of approximately 550 kilometres, will initially be packaged up tightly but around a week after launch, a 10-metre mast will deploy, allowing NuStar to achieve its unique x-ray focusing capabilities.