NASA Launches New X-ray Explorer

IXPE Launch
Lift-off of a SpaceX Falcon-9 rocket carrying the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer.
NASA / Joel Kowsky

It’s a busy month for launching astronomical observatories. While the countdown is on for the long-anticipated launch of the James Webb Space Telescope on December twenty second, NASA launched one other space observatory this morning, as a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carried the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) into orbit. The launch occurred at 1 a.m. EST (6:00 UT) from Launch Pad 39A on the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Liftoff, Falcon Stage 1 restoration and touchdown, and spacecraft deployment occurred flawlessly, placing IXPE in an equatorial, low-Earth orbit. The practically 0°-inclination orbit avoids publicity to the South Atlantic Anomaly, a area the place the innermost portion of the Van Allen radiation belts nears Earth. Placing the spacecraft in such a low-inclination orbit was on the very fringe of the capabilities of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, which needed to carry out a plane-of-inclination change, or “dogleg,” maneuver shortly after liftoff.

Solar arrays unfurled as anticipated one minute after spacecraft deployment. Next comes the spacecraft commissioning section over the subsequent week, to incorporate growth extension. First mild and the start of science operations for IXPE ought to happen in early January 2022, with an preliminary statement of supernova remnant Cassiopeia A.

“IXPE represents another extraordinary first,” says Thomas Zurbuchen (NASA-Science Mission Directorate) in a latest press release. “Together, with our partners in Italy and around the world, we’ve added a new space observatory to our fleet that will shape our understanding of the universe for years to come.”

IXPE is a joint collaboration between NASA and the Italian Space Agency. Part of NASA’s long-running Explorer Program, the observatory will price $214 million from improvement by its major two-year mission. IXPE is predicted to start major science operations in January 2022.

Seeing X-rays in a New Light

X-rays originate underneath among the most excessive situations within the universe: collisions, explosions, 10-million-degree temperatures, and robust magnetic fields. IXPE will study these processes utilizing a largely unexplored property of X-rays, often called polarization.

Certain processes emit X-rays as electromagnetic waves that vibrate in a most popular course. Other processes emit X-rays that vibrate each which way. By measuring the diploma of polarization, IXPE will assist astronomers acquire perception into the buildings and processes at work inside and round enigmatic astrophysical objects similar to supernovae, magnetars, and feeding black holes.

Besides studying in regards to the emission processes themselves, astronomers also can use X-ray polarization as a software: For instance, the diploma of polarization of X-rays emitted from inspiraling materials can inform astronomers how briskly the central black hole is spinning.

A diagram of the IXPE spacecraft with its growth absolutely prolonged. Mission companions at Italy’s Istituto Nazionale di Fisica Nucleare (INFN) and the Istituto Nazionale di AstroFisica (INAF) constructed the polarization detection optics, and Ball Aerospace constructed the spacecraft.

IXPE measures polarization utilizing three equivalent telescopes that sit on an prolonged growth. (The growth is folded for launch however shall be deployed as soon as the mission is in orbit.) The design makes use of grazing-incidence optics, every set consisting of 24 nested cylindrical mirrors. Each set of mirrors focuses photons within the 2 to eight kilo-electron volt (keV) vary onto a detector. Together, the triplet of X-ray telescopes will measure 4 key properties of incoming photons: arrival time, course, vitality, and most significantly, polarization.

IXPE joins a number of X-ray observatories already in orbit, together with XMM-Newton, Chandra, NuStar, and eROSITA. (Earth’s environment blocks X-rays, to allow them to solely be noticed from space.)

NASA’s household of orbiting and airborne astronomical observatories, together with IXPE.

IXPE will observe 50 X-ray sources throughout its major mission, together with the well-known Crab Nebula pulsar and Sgr A*, the supermassive black hole on the coronary heart of our galaxy. The fundamental science targets are to elucidate how such sources emit X-rays and to check common relativity in excessive environments.

“(IXPE) offers a new toolkit for astronomy and astrophysics,” says IXPE principal investigator Martin Weisskopf (NASA/MSFC) in a pre-launch news conference. “I can’t wait to see it at work.”


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