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NASA Releases Images of 'Hand of God' and Massive Black Holes Hiding in Dust

Jan 10, 2014 07:21 AM EST

NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array has released an image of a dead star that looks like a "Hand of God." Another image shows distant, super-massive black holes hiding in dust.

NuSTAR was launched June 13, 2012 and is on a mission to map the high-energy X-ray universe. The telescope array is looking for black holes, dead stars in our galaxy-The Milky Way and others.

"NuSTAR's unique viewpoint, in seeing the highest-energy X-rays, is showing us well-studied objects and regions in a whole new light," said Fiona Harrison, the mission's principal investigator at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, Calif, according to a statement.

Hand of God                                                                                                                                  

The image dubbed "Hand of God" is of a nebula that lies about 17,000 light-years away. A nebula is an interstellar cloud of dust. The dust cloud in the image is powered by a dead, spinning star called PSR B1509-58, B1509 NASA said. The star has apparently left a huge trail of dust as it exploded in a supernova

The core of the once-large star has been reduced to a pulsar, which is 12 miles in diameter. It is spinning about seven times every second and releasing tons of particles. The pulsar is interacting with a magnetic field of the thrown-out particles, causing the dust glow with X-rays. The resultant image resembles a huge hand in the sky.

Researchers aren't sure whether the material ejected by the pulsar is shaped like a hand or whether the pulsar's particles are interacting with the material in some specific way, which is causing the illusion.

"We don't know if the hand shape is an optical illusion," said Hongjun An of McGill University, Montreal, Canada. "With NuSTAR, the hand looks more like a fist, which is giving us some clues."

Massive Black Holes Hiding in Dust 

NuSTAR's second image is of active black holes lying between three and 10 billion light years away. These massive black-holes are located in a patch of the sky called the COSMOS field (for Cosmic Evolution Survey).

Previously, NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory spotted many such black holes, but not in such great depth as the NuSTAR's higher-energy X-ray observations.

Researchers hope to study the data from NuSTAR to study the distance and type of black holes.

"This is a hot topic in astronomy," said Francesca Civano of Yale University, New Haven, Conn.  "We want to understand how black holes grew in the past and the degree to which they are obscured."

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