Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Pegasus takes NuSTAR to orbit

Nose of the Pegasus rocket, with bulbous arm on top. Viewed from the carrier aircraft, the arm holds the rocket in place underneath the fuselage.

At about 10:00 am MDT this morning, NASA's NuSTAR satellite was dropped suddenly from the belly of an L1011 wide-bodied jet. Moments later the Pegasus XL rocket motor ignited, and the rocket soared up into the dark sky.

Ten a.m.? Dark sky? Well, this launch was not your typical launch. The rocket was lifted up from the Kwajalein Island runway in the pacific, while it was still dark in the early morning hours. Operations were broadcast on NASATV on UStream. The operation was managed by Orbital Sciences Corporation. Like SpaceX, Orbital is a private company making its way into space with innovative new technologies. This is not the first flight of the Pegasus, but it's use to place the NuSTAR into orbit is making news this morning.

Computer rendering of Pegasus lifting towards space.

The Lockheed L-1011 jet, designated Stargazer, lifted off about an hour before fropping the rocket. After a fall of about 5 seconds, the Pegasus blasted off toward orbit. Thirteen minutes later the NuSTAR satellite separated. NASA's TDRS tracking system soon was receiving signals from the spacecraft. Engineers will check out the systems for a week before sending the signal for the equipment to deploy.

Computer image of NuSTAR deployed.

NuSTAR is an unusual-looking spacecraft. It houses a special high-energy X-Ray telescope. When the command is given, the lens section will extend on a framework out to 10 meters. NuSTAR will discover and explore black holes, as well as galaxy clusters and super-dense dead stars. Mission control for the NuSTAR operation will be located at Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL).

Mission Control screen during launch. The Pegasus is boosting the NuSTAR, 
at the very left lower corner.

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