NASA’s New IXPE Mission Opens Its Eyes and Is Ready for Discovery!

An artist’s representation of IXPE in Earth’s orbit. Credit: NASA

NASAlatest X-ray eyes open and ready for discovery!

After spending just over a month in space, the X-ray Imaging X-ray Polarimetry (IXPE) Examiner is working and already zeroing in on some of the hottest, most energetic objects in the universe.

A joint effort between NASA and the Italian Space Agency, IXPE is the first space observatory dedicated to studying the polarization of X-rays emanating from objects such as exploded stars and black holes. Polarization describes how X-ray light is directed as it travels through space.

“The start of IXPE’s scientific observations marks a new chapter for X-ray astronomy,” said Martin Weisskopf, chief mission investigator at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. “One thing is certain: we can expect the unexpected.”

AX Cassiopeia and Optical ray

Cassiopeia The remains of a supernova. Credit: X-ray: NASA / CXC / SAO; Optical: NASA / STScI

IXPE launched December 9 on a Falcon 9 rocket to orbit 370 miles (600 kilometers) above the Earth’s equator. The observatory boom, which provides the distance needed to focus X-rays on its sensors, was successfully used on December 15. The IXPE team spent the next three weeks checking the observatory’s moving and pointing capabilities and aligning the telescopes.

During these tests, the team referred IXPE to two bright calibration targets: 1ES 1959 + 650, a galaxy core powered by a black hole with space jets shooting; and SMC X-1, a spiraling dead star, or pulsar. The brightness of these two sources made it easy for the IXPE team to spot where X-rays fall on IXPE-sensitive polarization sensors and make small adjustments to the alignment of the telescopes.

What’s Next for IXPE?

On January 11, IXPE began observing its first official scientific target – Cassiopeia A, or Cas A – the remains of a massive star and smashed itself into supernova approximately 350 years ago in our own. Milky Way galaxy. Supernovas are full of magnetic energy and accelerate particles to near light speed, making them laboratories for the study of extreme physics in space.

IXPE will provide details of the magnetic field structure of Cas A that cannot be observed in other ways. By studying the X-ray polarization, scientists can calculate the detailed structure of its magnetic field and the positions at which these particles accelerate.

IXPE observations of Cas A will last about three weeks.

“Measuring X-ray polarization is not easy,” said Weisskopf. “You have to collect a lot of light, and the unpolarized light acts as background noise. It can take a while to detect a polarizing signal. ”

More on IXPE Mission

IXPE transmits scientific data several times a day to a ground station operated by the Italian Space Agency in Malindi, Kenya. The data flows from the Malindi station to the IXPE Mission Operations Center at the University of Colorado Boulder Atmospheric and Space Physics Laboratory (LASP) and then to the IXPE Science Operations Center at NASA Marshall for processing and analysis. IXPE scientific data will be publicly available from the High Energy Astrophysics Science Research Center at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

The Marshall science operations team also coordinates with the LASP mission operations team to organize science observations. The mission plans to meet more than 30 planned targets in its first year. The mission will study giant infinity black holes with energetic particle jets that illuminate their host galaxies. IXPE will also examine the twisted space-time around stellar mass black holes and measure their spin. Other planned targets include different types of neutron stars, such as pulsars and magnetars. The science team has also set aside about a month to observe other interesting objects that might appear in the air or invigorate unexpectedly.

IXPE is a collaboration between NASA and the Italian Space Agency with science partners and colleagues in 12 countries. Ball Aerospace, headquartered in Broomfield, Colorado, manages spacecraft operations.

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