SpaceX launches NASA's IXPE telescope for x-ray views of the universe

A brand new space telescope will soon reveal a hidden vision of the cosmos, potentially transforming our understanding of black holes, s...


A brand new space telescope will soon reveal a hidden vision of the cosmos, potentially transforming our understanding of black holes, supernovas, and even the nature of the universe itself.

No no That one.

Much attention this month is devoted to the James Webb Space Telescope, from Nasa and the European Space Agency, which is scheduled to launch on December 22. But a more exclusive group of astronomers watched with enthusiasm Thursday the space travel of a smaller, but also transformative observatory.

NASA launched the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer, or IXPE, mission on a EspaceX The Falcon 9 rocket at Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 1 a.m. EST. The spaceship cost a mere $ 188 million, compared to James Webb’s colossal budget of $ 9.7 billion, and should demonstrate a new form of astronomy. It will, for the first time, perform in-orbit X-ray polarimetric imaging, a technique that could offer astronomers information that no other telescope can match.

“This gives us information on some of the most bizarre and exciting objects in space,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of the NASA Science Mission Directorate.

IXPE (pronounced by the mission team as “ix-pee”) was placed in orbit 340 miles above Earth after launch. The telescope will spend several weeks there deploying its scientific instruments and testing its equipment, then begin its two-year mission.

X-rays are a useful way to observe the universe. Emitted from extremely energetic objects, they allow astronomers to probe for events – superheated jets near black holes or star explosions, for example – in ways that other wavelengths, such as visible light, can not. But X-rays can only be studied from space because they are mainly absorbed by the Earth’s atmosphere.

A variety of dedicated X-ray telescopes and space instruments have been launched into orbit, including NASA’s Chandra X-ray and ESA’s XMM-Newton observatories, both launched in 1999. With spacecraft like those Here, scientists have unveiled the birthplaces of stars inside gas nebulae and mapped the spread of dark matter in galaxy clusters, among other pioneering work.

the the use of X-ray polarimetric imaging distinguishes IXPE from its predecessors. If you’ve ever worn a pair of polarized sunglasses, you may know that they use thin slits to block horizontal light, but turning them sideways blocks vertical light instead. The same principle is used in X-ray polarimetry. The technique will allow astronomers to observe the direction of wave motion of x-ray particles as they arrive, revealing the orientation of incoming electric and magnetic fields. Armed with this data, astronomers can glean more information from the x-rays emitted by astrophysical phenomena.

Instead of just observing the x-rays with a single instrument, the spacecraft is actually three separate telescopes, each comprising 24 concentric mirrors, at the end of a 13-foot-long arrow, which will extend over the first telescope week in space.

As the x-rays come in, they will be focused by each telescope on three detectors at the end of the boom. The detectors each contain a 10-millimeter layer of helium and a gas called dimethyl ether, or DME. This will reveal the polarization of the x-rays, which will trace traces in the gas when they strike.

“These detectors will provide an image of the polarization,” said Elisabetta Cavazzuti, program manager for the Italian Space Agency, which designed the detectors.

There have been several attempts at X-ray polarimetry in space before, said Martin Weisskopf, principal investigator for the mission at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. In 1971, Dr Weisskopf took part in a successful experimental mission which made brief x-ray polarization observations of the Crab Nebula in our galaxy using a sounding rocket, which ascends and descends straight but does not go into orbit. A later attempt to launch a more advanced polarimeter on the Soviet Spectrum-X spacecraft in the 1990s was interrupted by the collapse of the Soviet Union, according to Dr Weisskopf.

“We have been waiting for a polarimetry mission for a long time,” he said.

His patience and that of other researchers paid off in 2017, when NASA IXPE selected as part of its Small Explorers program.

During the two years following its launch, the IXPE probe will observe more than 100 cosmic targets, including black holes, supernovas and exotic stars.

One of the goals of the telescope is to observe the rotation of relatively small black holes, about 10 times the mass of our sun. X-ray polarimetry will be able to probe the relativistic effects that occur very close to these black holes, where the polarization angle of escaped X-ray photons should be changed as they move through space. -Highly distorted weather caused by the rotation of the black hole.

“For the first time, we can try to measure these distortions,” said Adam Ingram, professor of astrophysics at the University of Newcastle in England.

IXPE will also probe neutron stars, the nuclei remaining after the collapse of giant stars. Scientists are particularly interested in pulsars, which are rapidly spinning neutron stars, and magnetars, which are strongly magnetized stars.

By focusing on magnetars, the researchers hope to see how foolproof the laws of physics are. IXPE will be able to study an effect near these stars called quantum electrodynamics, or QED, where extremely strong magnetic fields are expected to cause a high level of polarization in the emitted x-ray particles.

“QED is the basis of our understanding of physics,” said Ilaria Caiazzo, a researcher at the California Institute of Technology. “If we found out it’s not fair, it would really revolutionize everything. I expect us to confirm this effect.

Elsewhere, IXPE could tell us more about the moments after the explosion of a star, a supernova. Data from the spacecraft will reveal how material ejected from a supernova interacts with the surrounding interstellar medium as it sinks into it at extreme speeds, creating a shock front. Electrons can then move from one side of the shock front to the other, a process known as diffusive shock acceleration.

“This is a very important process in astronomy, but we don’t fully understand the details,” Dr. Ingram said. “This is believed to be the reason why the supernova remnants are glowing.”

IXPE’s main mission is expected to last two years. But if NASA extends the mission, the spacecraft could last nearly two decades, said Dr Weisskopf. With more time, astronomers could study other targets, like Sagittarius A *, the supermassive black hole at the center of our galaxy. By looking for x-ray reflections from gas clouds near the black hole, they could look for evidence of increased Sagittarius A * activity over the past few centuries.

“Clouds wouldn’t be as bright as they appear unless the black hole was brighter several hundred years ago,” Dr Weisskopf said. “You can calculate how long it takes for the x-rays to reach the cloud and bounce back towards us. It is a very difficult experience.

Compared to super telescopes like the James Webb, the IXPE can be relatively small. But it does highlight the breadth of astronomy scientists are now undertaking and the new ways advanced machines are being used to explore our universe.

X-ray polarimetry, once a closed window to the cosmos is opened – and with it, a host of hidden secrets will be unlocked.

“It really is a new way of looking at the sky,” said Dr Zurbuchen.

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Newsrust - US Top News: SpaceX launches NASA's IXPE telescope for x-ray views of the universe
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