US space agency NASA on Thursday launched its new X-ray Mission to unlock the secrets of extreme cosmic objects.
The first space observatory of its kind, the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer, or IXPE, is built to study some of the most energetic objects in the universe — the remnants of exploded stars, powerful particle jets spewing from feeding black holes, and much more.
The mission lifted off at 1:00 a.m. EST (11.30 am IST) aboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket from historic Launch Complex 39A (LC-39A) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The project is a collaboration between NASA and the Italian Space Agency.
“Go #IXPE! Our newest X-ray observatory blasted off at 1:00am EST,” NASA shared in a tweet.
“This begins a new quest to unlock the secrets of some of the most energetic objects in our universe, from black holes to neutron stars,” it added.
IXPE is not as big and strong as the Chandra X-ray Observatory — NASA’s flagship X-ray telescope. While IXPE lacks in imaging power, it makes up by seeing an aspect of cosmic X-ray sources that has gone largely unexplored until now — polarisation.
“The launch of IXPE marks a bold and unique step forward for X-ray astronomy,” said Dr. Martin Weisskopf, IXPE’s principal investigator, in a statement.
“IXPE will tell us more about the precise nature of cosmic X-ray sources than we can learn by studying their brightness and colour spectrum alone,” he added.
IXPE is NASA’s first mission to explore the polarisation signatures of a variety of X-ray sources.
The spacecraft includes three identical space telescopes with sensitive detectors capable of measuring the polarisation of cosmic X-rays,
Each has a set of nested, cylinder-shaped mirrors that collect X-rays and feed them to a detector, which takes a picture of incoming X-rays and measures both the amount and direction of polarisation.
By analysing polarised X-rays with IXPE, scientists can learn more about the structure and behaviour of celestial objects, their surrounding environments, and the physics of how X-rays come to be. It will also allow scientists to answer fundamental questions about extremely complex environments in space where gravitational, electric, and magnetic fields are at their limits.
“IXPE will help us test and refine our theories of how the universe works,” Weisskopf said. “There may be even more exciting answers ahead than the ones we’ve hypothesised. Better yet, we may find whole lists of new questions to ask!”
For Weisskopf, who is also the project scientist for Chandra, adding polarisation to the X-ray mix has long been a goal. Making such measurements is difficult. It requires sensitive instruments, a rocket ride into space, and long observing times.
“This is going to be groundbreaking in terms of X-ray data acquisition,” Weisskopf said. “We’ll be analysing the results for decades to come.”