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Black-hole telescope gazes at the sun through X-ray eyes

An X-ray telescope designed to hunt for black holes takes a look at the sun and helps NASA deliver an intense portrait of our closest star.

The NuSTAR X-ray data is seen in green and blue. NASA/JPL-Caltech

You might remember X-Ray Specs, a set of novelty glasses sold in the back of old comic books. In case you're still wondering, they didn't really work. NASA, however, has a method of X-ray vision that works very well. The Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR) is a space-based telescope that's hanging out in orbit looking for black holes far, far away.

NuSTAR recently turned its head and took a good gander at something a little closer to home: our sun. "At first I thought the whole idea was crazy," says Fiona Harrison, NuSTAR principal investigator. "Why would we have the most sensitive high-energy X-ray telescope ever built, designed to peer deep into the universe, look at something in our own backyard?"

It turned out to be a fascinating proposition, one that resulted in a stunning image of X-rays streaming off the sun. NASA describes the image as "the most sensitive solar portrait ever taken in high-energy X-rays." The image shows the X-rays overlaid over an image of the sun taken by NASA's Solar Dynamics Observatory.

NuSTAR's X-ray vision gives it a leg up over other telescopes that can't look at the sun due to its brightness. Scientists are now hoping NuSTAR will be able to see nanoflares, small solar flares that have been hypothesized to exist. If found, nanoflares may explain why the sun's corona is so blazing hot. NuSTAR could even be harnessed in the search for dark-matter particles in the sun.

NuSTAR is still busy with its main mission of hunting down black holes and the remnants of supernovas in the deep reaches of space, but it could end up providing a bounty of data for researchers interested in solar matters, making it one of the most versatile telescopes in NASA's command.