Although the year may be winding down, NASA is gearing up for new discoveries with its IXPE spacecraft.
IXPE stands for Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer.
Spacecraft like the Hubble Space Telescope view the visible universe, but IXPE will be viewing the universe in a new light. This unique observatory will observe the invisible universe in X-ray light.
To study X-rays, NASA relies on satellites in orbit because the Earth’s atmosphere blocks X-rays from reaching us.
NASA Astrophysicist Dr. Jessica Gaskin says these X-rays come from extremely energetic environments.
IXPE has three X-ray telescopes that are designed to study some of the most energetic objects in space, including neutron stars and black holes. Dr. Gaskin is excited to learn about the environment around black holes.
“In fact, supermassive black holes can be hundreds of thousands to billions of times the mass of our Sun. And we have a supermassive black hole in the center of our own galaxy. And that black hole is around four million times the mass of our Sun. So IXPE will be able to tell if this black hole, sometime in its past, actively fed on all the material around it and shaped the galaxy that we see today.”
Although IXPE will have a relatively normal orbit, it will still be quite different from other spacecrafts.
“What makes it different is not just the fact that it can image X-ray light from these extreme objects, but it can also determine the nature of this light around extremely strong magnetic fields and these gas and dust environments that exist around these really exciting objects,” says Dr. Gaskin.
IXPE is going to be focusing on a nature of light that you have definitely heard of before-polarization.
“This is something that we use in our everyday lives. We use this nature of light, polarization, to help us design our polarized sunglasses for example. And those sunglasses block out all the unwanted scattered light that causes these glares. Well the same physics is involved here, and by understanding and being able to measure this property of light tells us something about the true nature of the objects that we’re looking at.”
NASA isn’t completing this mission alone. They partnered with the Italian Space Agency for the IXPE mission.
“In this case, and in a lot of cases for these observatories, we have international partners. So IXPE is partnered with the Italian Space Agency, and they built these amazing detectors to complement our optics,” says Dr. Gaskin.
NASA is always in the news with mission after mission. Each one is carefully crafted to complement the other by adding to the wealth of space knowledge.
“We as astronomers need to be able to see all different kinds of wavelengths across the entire electromagnetic spectrum. And by looking at the same object with all those wavelengths, we’re able to really understand the nature of those objects. The true nature of those objects.”
Next on the horizon is the James Webb Space Telescope, which will be launching very soon. While the two missions are different, both the James Webb Telescope and IXPE will work to create a more thorough view of our universe.
“It will look at some of the earliest galaxies, for example, as they’re forming. And while James Webb Space Telescope observes mainly in the infrared, IXPE will complement that with its high energy X-ray polar imagery measurements. So everybody works together to provide this complete picture.”
The IXPE launch is schedule for 1 a.m. EST Thursday morning from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.