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Japan's New Tool in Space

Scientists in Japan have successfully launched a new observation satellite. They hope the ASTRO-H will help unravel the mysteries of the universe.

ASTRO-H is dubbed an astronomical observatory in space. It's capable of detecting X-rays that can't be observed from Earth because the planet's atmosphere absorbs most of the rays. It's up to 100 times more sensitive to such rays than a conventional satellite.

It uses the rays to observe activity around black holes that cannot be seen by the naked eye. Black holes are places in space with such strong gravitational pull that even light cannot escape.

Astronomers believe some of them are spewing out jets of hot gas, but they can't observe what is happening.

Japanese researchers say close analysis of the X-rays detected by ASTRO-H will help them identify the gases escaping from black holes. They say they'll also be able to find out the direction and speed of the gases.

"I hope the satellite will shed more light on when and how black holes emerged," says Kazuo Makishima, a researcher at the Riken institute.

One of the instruments on ASTRO-H is a high-performance telescope. The inside of it is made of about 200 layers of thin aluminum mirrors.

Reflections of X-rays coming down through gaps between the mirrors project images. Each mirror is coated with a thin film made of material that can easily reflect X-rays. The surface needs to be very smooth to prevent uneven reflections and blurred images.

The mirrors were developed by a group of researchers at Nagoya University. And they are a result of technology and knowhow accumulated over the past 3 decades.

"I hope it'll help us find black holes where we've never expected them," says Hironori Matsumoto, an Associate Professor at Nagoya University.

Last week, a US-led international team of scientists said they succeeded in directly detecting gravitational waves for the first time. The team says the waves were produced when 2 black holes merged.

Astronomers hope ASTRO-H will reveal similar events in the universe that were previously undetectable.

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