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NASA Nod Moves Physics Professor Closer to Study of Black Holes
This image of the supermassive black hole at the center of our Galaxy, was taken by the Chandra X-ray observatory and was made from the longest X-ray exposure of that region to date.

For years, Columbia University Physics Professor Chuck Hailey has been tending to a project aimed at studying the energy emanating from exploding black holes. Now Hailey and project partners at the Danish Space Research Institute and University of California Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory are just one tantalizing step from realizing their dream.

NASA recently green-lighted a "phase-A" further study of Hailey's space mission, dubbed Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, or NuSTAR, which will deploy the first telescope capable of detecting black holes in our universe with 1,000 times the sensitivity of previous missions.

The decision virtually guarantees Hailey's project a 2009 launch date. It also provides Hailey and team with the money and time to ferret out potential gremlins in the array. NASA originally evaluated 39 space proposals as part of its low-cost ($100 million and less) Small Explorers Program. The proposals were whittled to a handful, and currently, only Hailey and his partners remain in the running. The team's principal investigator is Fiona Harrison, associate professor of physics and astronomy at California Institute of Technology.

Hailey is guardedly optimistic about the news. "We're very grateful to NASA and confident our project team will reach the launch stage," he said, "but we can't afford to lighten up. In a very real sense, it's ours to win or lose."

The explosion of stars at the end of their lives, when they go supernovae, produces gigantean amounts of energy in the form of X-rays and gamma rays. Adds Hailey, "Basically, we're looking at the debris of these explosions to grasp how stars collapse and then, explode. This project will help revolutionize our understanding of black holes. One simple way to imagine black holes is as engines that convert matter into energy."

Published: Feb 01, 2005
Last modified: Feb 01, 2005

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