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NASA launches Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer to study the X-ray universe

NASA launched its latest mission this week: A space-based observatory that will use X-ray instruments to study phenomena such as black holes, neutron stars, and pulsars. The Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) mission, a collaboration with the Italian Space Agency (ASI), was launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket Thursday, December 9 from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches with NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) spacecraft onboard.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches with NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) spacecraft onboard from Launch Complex 39A, Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The IXPE spacecraft is the first satellite dedicated to measuring the polarization of X-rays from a variety of cosmic sources, such as black holes and neutron stars. The launch occurred at 1 a.m. EST. NASA/Joel Kowsky

The IXPE spacecraft was successfully separated from its rocket around half an hour after its launch, after which it unfurled its solar arrays and entered into orbit around the planet. Early telemetry data was sent back to the ground and indicates that all is well with the new observatory.

“It is an indescribable feeling to see something you’ve worked on for decades become real and launch into space,” said Martin Weisskopf, IXPE’s principal investigator at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, in a statement. “This is just the beginning for IXPE. We have much work ahead. But tonight, we celebrate!”

IXPE contains three identical telescopes which will look in the X-ray wavelength, alongside the other major X-ray observatory, NASA’s Chandra. It will look at the amount of polarization in X-ray light to find out about features like the spin of black holes or the busy central regions of galaxies, called active galactic nuclei.

“IXPE represents another extraordinary first,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington, in the statement. “Together with our partners in Italy and around the world, we’ve added a new space observatory to our fleet that will shape our understanding of the universe for years to come. Each NASA spacecraft is carefully chosen to target brand new observations enabling new science, and IXPE is going to show us the violent universe around us — such as exploding stars and the black holes at the center of galaxies – in ways we’ve never been able to see it.”

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Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
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