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VIDEO: Airborne Launch Sends X-Ray Observatory Into Earth Orbit

A NASA mission aimed at surveying black holes and supernovae, among other things, launched successfully today at noon ET from beneath the belly of a wide-body jet flying approximately 40,000 feet above a darkened Pacific Ocean.

The 772-pound NuSTAR X-ray observatory was carried into an equatorial orbit about 400 miles above the Earth by a Pegasus rocket, which fired its three-stage motor for 13 minutes after being dropped by the L-1011 jet.

The Pegasus launch system has been used in more than 40 missions and can carry payloads of up to 1,000 pounds into low-Earth Orbit.

The NuSTAR launch team flew out of the Kwajalein Atoll's Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site. The world's largest coral atoll, Kwajalein is part of the Marshall Islands and sits about half way between Hawaii and Australia.

The choice of an equatorial orbit lowers the NuSTAR's exposure to something called the "South Atlantic Anomaly," a hot spot where the Earth's innermost radiation belt comes closest to the planet.

The two-year NuSTAR (Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array) mission, which is expected to start its scientific program in about 30 days, will deploy the first telescopes capable of focusing in the X-ray region of the electromagnetic spectrum. NewScientist says the $170 million project should provide images "10 times crisper and 100 times more sensitive" than those of previous missions, such as the Chandra X-ray observatory.

Scientists say the improved sensitivity and resolution will help them better understand known high-energy objects and, hopefully, discover new, unexpected features of the universe.

The NuSTAR mission is being led by a team at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and managed by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Orbital Sciences Corporation built the NuSTAR satellite, Pegasus rocket and operated the launch L-1011 aircraft.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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