NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) was launched into orbit on top of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on Thursday morning. NASA’s first mission dedicated to exploring and measuring X-ray polarisation is a two-year collaboration with the Italian Space Agency.
The pioneering mission will allow NASA to investigate the origins of X-ray light, a type of high-energy light produced during astronomical events such as supernova explosions and severe collisions. The mission builds on NASA’s flagship X-ray astronomy mission, the Chandra X-ray Observatory, which debuted in 1999 and has studied the remnants of exploding stars, detected black holes, and more. The IXPE will shed further light on the astrophysical processes that Chandra has previously investigated.
According to NASA, the IXPE will begin operations in January. IXPE will analyse roughly 40 celestial objects during its first year, with extensive follow-up studies in the second year.
The IXPE mission consists of three telescopes with mirrors that will gather X-rays emitted by astronomical objects such as supermassive black holes and concentrate them onto detectors that can analyse their polarisation. Unlike visible light from a lightbulb, which scatters in all directions, polarised light has all of its vibrations aligned in one direction. Astronomers can learn more about the environment it came from and travelled through on its journey across the cosmos by examining its attributes.
According to NASA, the project will reveal long-awaited answers to problems such as how black holes spin, whether our galaxy’s black hole was actively feeding on surrounding material in the past, and why pulsars release so much X-ray light.
About 33 minutes into the journey, the IXPE observatory broke from the rocket, unfurled its solar arrays, and entered an orbit over Earth’s equator. Mission controllers got the first batch of telemetry data from the spacecraft 40 minutes after launch, according to NASA.
The IXPE launch, albeit overlooked, is a big win for NASA as it prepares for the launch of the James Webb Telescope on December 22nd, NASA’s next great eye in the sky.