Friday, January 28

From supernovae to supermassive black holes: NASA launches its new IXPE space mission to measure extreme objects of the universe

Not everything in the field is oregano. And not everything in the matter of space telescopes is reduced to the gigantic, millionaire and above all promising James Webb. While waiting for the successor to Hubble to take off from Kouro, in French Guiana, on December 22 – that is, of course, if there is not a new setback – astronomers are already rubbing their hands with the possibilities of the new mission from NASA: Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE), launched early Thursday (local time) from Florida and aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.

Your mission –as collected by the US agency itself in a statement– is to measure the polarization of the X-rays of “the most extreme and mysterious objects in the universe: supernova remnants, supermassive black holes and dozens of other high-energy objects. “

Objective: expand understanding of the universe

“Together with our partners in Italy and around the world, we have added a new space observatory to the fleet that will shape our understanding of the universe for years to come. Each NASA spacecraft is carefully chosen to target observations that enable new science, and IXPE will show us the violent universe around us, such as exploding stars and black holes at the center of galaxies, in ways we have never been able to. see ”, highlights Thomas Zurbuchen, from NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

For now, the first steps of the IXPE mission invite optimism … or tranquility, at the very least. The US agency confirms that the takeoff from the Kennedy Space Center It was a success and IXPE entered orbit around Earth’s equator at an altitude of about 372 miles, about 600 kilometers, without a hitch. Forty minutes after launch, the operators were already receiving the first telemetry data from the spacecraft.

The first step: unfold your capacity

IXPE incorporates three state-of-the-art space telescopes equipped with special detectors sensitive to polarization, a property of light – as detailed by NASA – that can provide information to experts about the environment from which it comes. Technicians hope that IXPE will complete the work carried out with other telescopes, such as the Chandra X-ray Observatory. As required The New York TimesDuring a first phase that will last several weeks, IXPE will remain around 340 miles from Earth. During that time, he will deploy his scientific instruments and test his equipment, an initial step to start a mission that will last two years.

One of the main characteristics of IXPE will be precisely your use of X-ray polarimetry, which will allow astronomers to observe the direction of the wave motion of its particles. Each of the three telescopes is equipped with 24 concentric mirrors.

It will not be the first time that NASA has tried to collect information with X-ray polarimetry. The New York Times recalls how an experimental mission in 1971 made brief X-ray polarization observations of the Crab Nebula. In the 90s there was another attempt, led by Russian experts, but the mission ended up interrupted by the collapse of the USSR. “We have waited a long time to have a polymetry mission”, Recognized from NASA to the newspaper.

Cover image | NASA