Waterloo black hole researcher to get data from Japanese space mission

A University of Waterloo astrophysicist is hoping the new Japanese ASTRO-H X-ray telescope will help him learn more about black holes. It's the first time Canada has been a full partner in an orbiting X-ray telescope project.

Astrophysicist Brian McNamara to learn more about black holes from ASTRO-H mission

A supermassive black hole with millions to billions times the mass of our sun is seen in an undated NASA artist's concept illustration. In this illustration, the supermassive black hole at the center is surrounded by matter flowing onto the black hole in what is termed an accretion disk. This disk forms as the dust and gas in the galaxy falls onto the hole, attracted by its gravity. Also shown is an outflowing jet of energetic particles, believed to be powered by the black hole's spin. (NASA/Reuters)

A University of Waterloo astrophysicist is hoping a new x-ray telescope will help him learn more about black holes, which in turn may tell us about the origins of life.

Brian McNamara is among two other Canadian astronomers who will receive data from the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency's X-ray observatory called ASTRO-H. The mission is set to launch early Wednesday morning at about 3:45 a.m.

The Canadian science team will be able to access the data as part of a partnership between Canada and Japan in the mission. The Canadian Space Agency provided a laser alignment system for the observatory's instruments.

"We will get the science data of black holes and galaxies and galaxy clusters," McNamara said in an interview with CBC News. "So, we get to have fun with the science data in return for Canada's contribution to this technical aspect of the telescope."

It is the first time Canada has been a full partner in an earth-orbiting X-ray astronomy mission.

New tool in space

McNamara studies the effect of super massive black holes on the spaces around them.

"Black holes sitting in the middle of galaxies actually control the rate that these galaxies grow," he said.

"This telescope will allow us to study the motions of gas and the immediate vicinity of gas of black holes and also the motions of very hot gases."

He said, at the very worst, the information obtained from ASTRO-H will confirm what they already theorize about black holes.

The barred spiral galaxy NGC 4639 is seen in an undated image taken by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, released October 16, 2015. NGC 4639 conceals a massive black hole that is consuming the surrounding gas, according to a NASA news release. (NASA/ESA/Reuters)

"The very exciting possibilities are that we'll find something very different from what we thought and that will lead us in new directions, to new physics, and usually that happens,"

With any new instrument in space, which the X-ray telescope is, "you usually find things you didn't quite expect."

'It's about how we got here'

To break down his research to it's simplest, McNamara said it's all about origins.

"It's about how we got here and where we're going," he said. "We're studying the life cycles of galaxies and massive black holes."

X-rays, he said, will carry information about how a star was born and how it dies.

"We just want to know how we got here and I think that's important to people," he said.

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