Pushing the boundaries of space research with X-ray polarimetry

(ORDO NEWS) — The secrets hidden in the vast expanses of space have intrigued mankind for many centuries. The invention of the optical telescope in the 17th century allowed people to see stars that appeared to be just twinkling dots in the night sky.

Thanks to scientific innovation over the next four centuries, we can launch telescopes into space to get a better view of astronomical objects and even study them at wavelengths outside the visible spectrum. One of such expeditions into space is the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) research vehicle launched by NASA on December 9, 2021.

IXPE is a space observatory developed in collaboration with the Italian Space Agency (ASI). It consists of three identical telescopes, each of which has an X-ray detector at its focus, sensitive to the polarization of light.

With these, IXPE can explore some of the brightest cosmic X-ray sources in our universe, such as pulsars, black holes, and neutron stars. Through a two-year baseline mission, IXPE will begin by studying dozens of X-ray sources in the first year, followed by more detailed observations of selected objects in the second year.

Conceived in 2017, this multinational project became a reality in 2021 thanks to the participation of several space agencies that have come together to implement various aspects of the mission.

A paper published recently in the Journal of Astronomical Telescopes, Instruments, and Systems provides a detailed description of the optics and detectors of the IXPE and the science objectives of the mission.

IXPE was launched on a Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center into an equatorial orbit at an altitude of 600 km.

This orbit was chosen to reduce the background of charged particles, maximize the lifetime of the observatory, and ensure regular data uploads to the main and backup ground stations (Kenya and Singapore, respectively). To maintain orientation in space, the observatory uses an array of 12 solar sensors, a three-axis magnetometer and two star trackers.

Each telescope at the IXPE observatory consists of a mirror assembly (MMA). MMA focuses X-rays onto polarization-sensitive detectors (DPs), which in turn assist in energy and position determination by providing time information and polarization sensitivity data.

The information collected by the DP is transmitted to the Detector Servicing Unit (DSU), which processes the data and transmits it to the ground. The lightweight spool rod deploys after launch to ensure correct focal length and alignment of the MMA with the DP. In addition, there is a tilt and turn mechanism on board that can also be used to align the mirrors with the detectors.

After the initial stages of alignment and calibration, IXPE began its basic mission by providing high quality polarization data from a variety of sources. The first image data was received in February. The IXPE team expects that the brightest early images are likely to come from supernova remnants (a supernova that emits most of its radiation from a shell of impact material).

They believe that IXPE will also be able to image active galaxies, the galactic center of the Milky Way galaxy and “blazars” – a type of galaxies that emit powerful jets of ionized matter and radiation. This will make it possible to further expand the boundaries of observations, exploring new types of sources that are of particular interest for obtaining physical knowledge.

“The astrophysical community has been looking forward to this opportunity – IXPE opens a new window into the X-ray sky, providing orders of magnitude higher sensitivity than previous X-ray polarimeters in space,” said Megan Eckart, Associate Editor of JATIS.

A marvel of science and technology, IXPE will provide the first X-ray polarization information for many astronomical sources. With state-of-the-art telescopes and detectors, IXPE is able to expand our knowledge of the universe.”

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