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NASA launches new X-ray mission to study black holes and exploding stars

NASA launches new X-ray mission to study black holes and exploding stars


The IXPE is the space agency’s first mission dedicated to studying X-ray polarization

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Photo showing the imaging x-ray polarimetry explorer that launched in space early Thursday morning
Illustration of the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer
Image: NASA

On Thursday morning, NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) successfully launched into space on top of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. The two-year mission, a joint effort with the Italian Space Agency, is NASA’s first mission dedicated to studying and measuring X-ray polarization.

The pioneering mission will allow NASA to look into the origins of X-ray light, a form of high energy light produced during some of the most extreme celestial events like supernova explosions and violent collisions. The mission builds on the work done by the Chandra X-ray Observatory, NASA’s flagship X-ray astronomy mission, which launched in 1999 and has imaged the remnants of exploded stars, discovered black holes, and more. The IXPE will provide more insight into the astrophysical phenomena Chandra has studied in the past.

The IXPE will begin operations in January, NASA reports. During its first year, IXPE will study about 40 celestial objects with detailed follow-up observations in its second year.

The IXPE mission consists of three identical telescopes containing mirrors that will collect X-rays emanating from celestial objects, like supermassive black holes, and focus them onto detectors that can measure their polarization. Polarized light is light whose vibrations are all aligned in a single direction, unlike the visible light from a lightbulb, which scatters in every direction. By studying its properties, astronomers can learn more about what sort of environment it came from and passed through on its journey throughout the cosmos.

According to NASA, the mission will provide long-awaited answers to questions like how black holes spin, whether the black hole at the center of our galaxy was actively feeding on surrounding material in the past, and why pulsars emit so much X-ray light.

The IXPE observatory separated from the rocket about 33 minutes into flight before unfurling its solar arrays and entering an orbit around Earth’s equator. Forty minutes after the launch, mission operators received the first set of telemetry data from the spacecraft, NASA wrote in a press release.

Though an overshadowed one, the IXPE launch is a major victory for NASA as the agency preps for the December 22nd launch of the James Webb Telescope, NASA’s next major eyes in the sky.