NASA has approved a new mission that will finally peer into the most incredible regions of the universe.
The space agency will launch the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) in 2020. The mission will have three telescopes equipped with special cameras that can sensitively measure the X-ray light emitted in the areas surrounding black holes, neutron stars, and pulsars.
Gases in these extreme environments reach temperatures of more than a million degrees, and the intense gravitational and electromagnetic fields twist and bend light like nowhere else in the universe. These effects can give photons – particles of light – a specific direction, and it’s this direction, known as polarization, that IXPE will assess like no other instrument before.
“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, in a statement. “NASA has a great history of launching observatories in the Astrophysics Explorers Program with new and unique observational capabilities. IXPE will open a new window on the universe for astronomers to peer through. Today, we can only guess what we will find.”
The mission is expected to cost $188 million, which includes the telescope, the launch vehicle, post-launch operation, and even the data analysis. It will be led by Martin Weisskopf of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. The spacecraft will be provided by Ball Aerospace and the X-rays detectors will be developed by the Italian Space Agency.
IXPE has been selected as part of NASA’s Explorers Program, which has launched more than 90 missions and provided a vast range of instruments over our heads. Notable missions include Explorer 1, which discovered the Van Allen Belts in 1958, and the Cosmic Background Explorer, which studied the cosmic microwave background and led the principal investigators to win the Nobel Prize.