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Peering at Black Holes

Supermassive black hole. In this artist's rendition, dust grains mixed with heated, outflowing gas can be seen as brown wisps to the north and south of the central yellow spot.

Stocktrek Images/Getty Images

In February 2012, the NuSTAR orbital observatory is scheduled to be launched into orbit in a path near the equator at about 300 miles (483 kilometers) in altitude (in space exploration lingo, a low-Earth orbit). It will be equipped with telescopes capable of focusing on X-ray radiation from distant stars, and will be able to transmit images that are 10 to 100 times more detailed than images from previous orbital telescopes. During its two-year main mission, NuSTAR will survey regions around the center of the Milky Way, searching for dying stars and black holes [source: Caltech]. The latter are the burned-out remnants of once-giant suns whose immense mass has collapsed to form bizarre points of zero volume and infinite density, with gravity so powerful that not even light can escape [source: NASA]. In addition, NuSTAR will study the mysterious streams of particles that gush out of supermassive black holes. It also will examine the chemical remnants of exploded stars, to shed light on how stars explode and create elements in the process [source: Caltech].

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