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Explained: NASA’s IXPE mission that will explore universe’s mysterious objects

We explain NASA’s new mission named Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer or IXPE, the instruments it is carrying and its importance.

NASA’s newest X-ray observatory rocketed into orbit Thursday to shed light on exploded stars, black holes and other violent high-energy events unfolding in the universe.

On December 9, NASA launched a new mission named Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer or IXPE. Onboard SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket, it was sent to its orbit from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

IXPE observatory is a joint effort of NASA and the Italian Space Agency. The mission will study “the most extreme and mysterious objects in the universe – supernova remnants, supermassive black holes, and dozens of other high-energy objects.”

The mission’s primary length is two years and the observatory will be at 600 kilometers altitude, orbiting around Earth’s equator. IXPE is expected to study about 40 celestial objects in its first year in space.

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Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington said in a release: “IXPE is going to show us the violent universe around us – such as exploding stars and the black holes at the center of galaxies – in ways we’ve never been able to see it.”


What are the instruments onboard?

IXPE carries three state-of-the-art space telescopes. Each of the three identical telescopes hosts one light-weight X-ray mirror and one detector unit. These will help observe polarized X-rays from neutron stars and supermassive black holes. By measuring the polarization of these X-rays, we can study where the light came from and understand the geometry and inner workings of the light source.

This new mission will complement other X-ray telescopes such as the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the European Space Agency’s X-ray observatory, XMM-Newton.

Why is it important?


According to NASA, IXPE’s polarization measurements will help scientists answer questions such as:

•How do black holes spin?

•Was the black hole at the center of the Milky Way actively feeding on surrounding material in the past?

•How do pulsars shine so brightly in X-rays?

•What powers the jets of energetic particles that are ejected from the region around the supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies?

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Martin Weisskopf, IXPE’s principal investigator at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama said in a release: “It is an indescribable feeling to see something you’ve worked on for decades become real and launch into space. This is just the beginning for IXPE. We have much work ahead. But tonight, we celebrate!”

First published on: 10-12-2021 at 13:15 IST
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