Some of the most exotic and intriguing objects in the universe, such as neutron stars and black holes, are largely beyond the capability of scientists to study directly. But they can be studied by looking at details of the extremely energetic regions of space immediately around these objects. That’s precisely what NASA intends to do with its latest astrophysical award.
On Tuesday afternoon, the space agency announced it would fund the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) mission, with three space telescopes capable of measuring the polarization of cosmic X-rays in the vicinity of objects such as magnetars, isolated pulsars, pulsar wind nebula and supernova remnants, microquasars, active galaxies, and more. The mission, slated for a launch in 2020, will be funded at $188 million for instrument development, launch, and data analysis. The Italian Space Agency will contribute highly sensitive X-ray detectors.
“We cannot directly image what’s going on near objects like black holes and neutron stars, but studying the polarization of X-rays emitted from their surrounding environments reveals the physics of these enigmatic objects,” said Paul Hertz, astrophysics division director for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “IXPE will open a new window on the universe for astronomers to peer through. Today, we can only guess what we will find.”
Typically, light waves vibrate in multiple of directions. Polarized light waves, however, are light waves that vibrate in a single plane. The IXPE mission will attempt to measure the faint polarized component of X-rays that are normally swamped by the stronger, non-polarized signal. The proposed telescopes will have an unprecedented sensitivity to polarized X-rays emanating from black holes and other objects that heat their surrounding environments. By studying this high-energy radiation, NASA hopes to indirectly learn about environments in space where gravitational, electric, and magnetic fields reach extremes.
Although the NASA news release does not specify a launch vehicle, previous IXPE documents have suggested the 300kg payload could be launched on a Pegasus vehicle, a proven, air-launched rocket developed by Orbital ATK. The IXPE mission will be funded as part of NASA’s Explorers Program, which offers low-cost access for science investigations in astrophysics and heliophysics. The program has launched more than 90 missions, including Explorer 1 in 1958 and the Cosmic Background Explorer mission.
Source: Ars Technica