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

Artist’s representation of IXPE in Earth’s orbit. credit: NASA

NASAThe latest X-ray eyes are open and ready to be detected!

After spending just over a month in space, IXPE is already up and working on focusing 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 coming from objects such as supernovae and black holes. Polarization describes how X-ray light is directed as it travels through space.

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

Cassiopeia AX Ray and Optical

The same chair is a supernova remnant. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; Optical: NASA/STSCI

On December 9, IXPE launched a Falcon 9 rocket into an orbit 370 miles (600 km) above the Earth’s equator. The observatory’s arm, which provides the distance needed to focus X-rays on its detectors, was successfully deployed on December 15. The IXPE team spent the next three weeks checking the observatory’s ability to maneuver, point and align the telescopes.

During these tests, the team pointed IXPE at two bright targets for calibration: 1ES 1959 + 650, a black-hole galactic nucleus with jets firing into space; The SMC X-1, a rotating dead star, or pulsar. The brightness of these two sources made it easier for the IXPE team to see where the X-rays hit the polarization-sensitive IXPE detectors and make small adjustments to the telescopes’ alignment.

What’s next for IXPE?

On January 11, IXPE began observing its first official scientific target – Cassiopeia A, or Cas A – the remnant of a massive star that exploded itself in a supernova about 350 years ago in our region. Milky Way galaxy. Supernovae are filled with magnetic energy and accelerate particles to nearly the speed of light, making them laboratories for studying the extreme physics of space.

IXPE will provide details about the magnetic field structure of Cas A that cannot be observed in other ways. By studying the polarization of X-rays, scientists can determine the detailed structure of its magnetic field and the locations where these particles pick up velocity.

IXPE observations on Cas A will last about three weeks.

“Measuring X-ray polarizations is not easy,” Weisskov said. “You have to collect a lot of light, and unpolarized light acts like background noise. It can take some time to detect the polarized signal.”

More on the IXPE mission

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

Marshall’s science operations team also coordinates with the mission operations team at LASP to schedule scientific observations. The mission plans to monitor more than 30 planned targets during its first year. The mission will study distant supermassive black holes with jets of energetic particles illuminating their host galaxies. IXPE will also probe the warped spacetime around stellar-mass black holes and measure their rotation. Other planned targets include various types of neutron stars, such as pulsars and magnetars. The science team also spent about a month observing other interesting things that might appear in the sky or light up unexpectedly.

IXPE is a collaboration between NASA and the Italian Space Agency with scientific partners and collaborators in 12 countries. Ball Aerospace, headquartered in Broomfield, Colorado, operates the spacecraft.

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