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NASA's new black hole spotter makes it into orbit

Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer's two year mission will check out polarization of black holes, neutrons and other celestial objects

In the wee hours of Thursday morning, a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launched NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) mission into orbit from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center.

IXPE's job is to peer into the dark corners of the universe, where it's hoped it will spot the remnants of supernovae, supermassive black holes, and other high-energy objects.

That mission has progressed well so far. About 33 minutes after launch the spacecraft separated and unfurled its solar arrays.

IXPE then entered orbit around Earth’s equator at around 372 miles (600 km) and started sending back its first telemetry data. The spacecraft inhabits that 600 km spot because it’s the highest orbit in which it could be placed in and still deorbit in 25 years as part of NASA’s requirement for mitigating orbital debris.

Its zero-degree inclination enables minimal cosmic ray exposure, a dangerous element of outer space that often damages electronic systems.

While up in space dodging cosmic rays, IXPE and its three telescopes will be building on the work of Chandra, a space telescope launched in 1999 that studied x-ray wavelengths within the black holes, neutrons and other celestial objects, by looking at those x-ray wavelengths as well as the polarization.

IXPE can locate specific x-ray photons from a specific sources due to the clever positioning of its mirror module assemblies while measuring the polarization in degree and angle from different regions.

“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,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington.

The mission is managed by NASA Marshall as part of the agency’s Science Mission Directorate, but is an international collaboration with The Italian Space Agency and partners and providers across 12 other countries. The Italian Space Agency contributed IXPE’s polarization detectors, Ball Aerospace did the spacecraft and manages its operations with the University of Colorado Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics.

IXPE's intended to operate for two years, on a budget price of just US$188M. The launch cost is an estimated US$50.3 million. NASA's largest missions often cost more than a billion bucks.

The idea for the spacecraft came from Martin Weisskopf, a scientist who has studied X-ray astronomy since the 1970s and serves as IXPE’s principal investigator.

“This is just the beginning for IXPE. We have much work ahead,” said Weisskopf, adding “But tonight, we celebrate!” ®

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