New NASA X-Ray Observatory to Reveal the Most Violent Events in Space

By The Associated Press
The Associated Press
The Associated Press
December 8, 2021 Updated: December 8, 2021

This is the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket taking off last month taking NASA’s DART craft into space. That was to test whether the new system can knock off course any asteroids which threaten Earth.

On Dec. 9 it will be taking off from Cape Canaveral carrying NASA’s new observatory, the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer IXPE.

IXPE will look at extreme events as they happen in Space, revealing in more detail about events like exploding stars, or spinning black holes.

It can penetrate large amounts of gas and dust so we can see parts of the galaxy we can’t normally see.

Professor Andrew Fabian from the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge says it’s an important next step in the exploration of Space:

“We’re also really are discovering things about the Universe and where we all came from, this is not in terms of life, I mean where to stars come from and galaxies and all of that kind of thing.”

According to astronomers, IXPE will achieve more than previous observatories because it exploits the polarization state of light from astrophysical sources.

Scientists like Fabian believe it will give us an insight into the production of objects such as neutron stars and supermassive black holes:

“As we explore these other parts of discovery space, we find new things, real things that nobody ever thought about before and one area of discovery space that’s been waiting since the 70s is polarization in the X-ray band, okay, and there were measurements of polarization from something called the Crab Nebula in the 1970s. And that’s it.”

The Crab Nebula is what remains of an exploded supernova star, it’s been studied extensively since the 1970s.

According to Fabian: “In orbit will be IXPE, which has a detector which is 100 times more sensitive than that one (the first X-ray telescope in the 1970s), and it can open up the X-ray, the polarized X-ray universe. It’s probably not going to make us a new widget or anything, but it’s actually going to give us another aspect on what’s going on.”

The polarization of light goes one step further. It tells us about the size and geometry of objects the observatory encounters in Space.

Professor Julian Osborne, an astrophysicist who specializes in X-ray telescopes at the University of Leicester, says polarization will enable scientists to see what is happening in extreme events more clearly:

“With polarization, we can find out things which we just can’t see with a normal telescope and so although we can see the shapes of X-ray sources in the sky and guess what magnetic field orientations exist there, what shapes magnetic fields exist. This is essentially speculation. Until we make the measurements, we can’t be sure of this.”

The IXPE observatory has three identical telescopes made of mirrors and detectors which are separated by an extendable mast.

The mirror section of each telescope contains 24 nested mirrors that collect and focus X-rays.

According to NASA, the telescopes have extremely sensitive detectors which have been developed by Italian scientists.

They track and measure all four properties of the incoming light, this includes its arrival time, its direction, energy, and polarization.

IXPE’s mission over two years is to observe more than 50 brilliant objects such as the leftovers of huge stars which have exploded into supernovae.

It’ll also look at a supermassive black hole at the heart of our own Milky Way galaxy as well as the dense remains of stars like the Crab Nebula.

Professor Chris Done, from Durham University, also believes the observatory will reveal details which they haven’t had access to before:

“The sources we really want to look at, the really close regions around black holes and neutron stars where there’s really extreme physics, we can’t image those yet, but if we use this quality of light that it’s not just got a direction, but it’s got a kind of plane in which it’s traveling, and that plane that polarization tells us something about the shape about the geometry of the source that we can’t imagine.”

Osborne says the observatory will allow scientists to study physics that can’t be replicated on Earth because of the extreme environments from which they come:

“The things we see in X-rays in the universe are the most extreme types of objects. The environments in which they exist can’t be recreated on the Earth. So by studying them in these extreme environments in space, we can test our theories at very high energy densities or very high magnetic fields that are just unachievable on the ground.”

Done is particularly interested to see what happens when matter disappears into a black hole:

“If we get one of these sources going off that’s bright enough for this new telescope to see, it should be able to test that model of whether the material is wobbling around the spin axis before it slides down below the event horizon and is lost forever.”

Osborne believes IXPE could also help us to eventually understand more about magnetic fields which are important to scientists on Earth who are studying how to make fusion into an alternative, clean source of energy:

“They’re very important if we’re going to make use of fusion energy is a new clean source of power where we will control the plasma with magnetic fields. And so understanding how matter behaves in strong magnetic fields, you know, it’s of importance in fundamental physics, but you know, there’s also potential payoffs.”

The observatory is expected to take off from Cape Canaveral in the U.S. at 06.00 GMT on the 9th of December.