NASA may eventually keep an eye on super-hot galaxy clusters thanks to an invention inspired by a roll of Scotch tape.
The center of a galaxy cluster houses a soup of superheated gas and plasma, in which electrons bounce around at about the speed of light. Scientists are keen to get a glimpse of the intense X-rays emitted from these fiery centers, which could shed light on the physics at work in the centers of galaxy clusters and help researchers understand the evolution of the universe.
But there's a problem: The special mirrors -- which are curved and nested inside a cylindrical assembly -- that scientists use to collect these X-rays are expensive to make. In June, NASA launched the NuStar X-ray telescope to look for black holes and other celestial structures. The NuStar has a mirror with an effective area of 300 square centimeters, but scientists would need a mirror with an effective area of about a meter squared to see the cosmic rays from galaxy clusters.
"With current technology, it is prohibitively expensive to build that," says NASA astrophysicist Maxim Markevitch.
But Markevitch hit upon a possible solution, thanks to the aforementioned roll of tape. He thought that they could build a larger mirror more cheaply using tape coated on one side with reflective material -- probably a sandwich of carbon and platinum -- and then wound into a roll.
NASA brought in some technical experts to work with Markevitch to make his idea a reality. He says they've already identified a good candidate tape and are working toward building a small prototype.
But don't get too excited just yet. Markevitch warns that "the time between concept and launch for a project like this is often several decades."