Spaceflight Insider

NASA announces new mission to study black holes, stellar remnants

Black holes

In this artist’s illustration, turbulent winds of gas swirl around a black hole. Some of the gas is spiraling inward toward the black hole, while some are blown away. Image Credit: NASA and M. Weiss (Chandra X-ray Center)

NASA’s Astrophysics Explorers Program has announced that it is funding a mission to study black holes, neutron stars, and pulsars by measuring the high-energy X-ray radiation surrounding them.

Neutron stars are stellar remnants of massive stars that have undergone the supernova explosions that end their lives. Pulsars are rotating neutron stars that emit jets of particles from their magnetic poles.

Black holes can either be remnants of supernova explosions or the supermassive type found at the centers of most galaxies. All are exotic objects that are difficult to study because they cannot be imaged directly.

The new mission, titled Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE), will use three space telescopes to measure high-energy X-ray radiation produced when surrounding gases are heated by black holes, neutron stars, and pulsars to temperatures exceeding one million degrees.

IXPE concept

Artist’s concept of the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) spacecraft observing an active black hole in space. Image Credit: NASA

At such high temperatures, the X-rays produced by these gases become polarized, meaning they vibrate in a particular direction.

IXPE will use three space telescopes equipped with cameras that can measure the X-rays’ polarization, which will provide scientists with crucial data about these objects, such as the sizes and strengths of their magnetic, electric, and gravitational fields.

“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,” stated NASA Science Mission Directorate astrophysics division director Paul Hertz.

He described IXPE as the latest in a series of unique observatories launched by the Astrophysics Explorers Program.

“IXPE will open a new window on the universe for astronomers to peer through. Today, we can only guess what we will find.”

The project was one of 14 submitted in response to a request for new mission proposals announced by the Astrophysics Explorers Program in September 2014.

Of those 14, three finalists were selected for further review by a committee composed of both NASA and independent scientists.

After studying these reports, NASA chose IXPE, both for its science goals and the feasibility of methods for achieving them.

The Astrophysics Explorers Program has put together more than 90 low-cost missions for the study of astrophysics and heliophysics since 1958.

Like all program missions, IXPE will be led by a principal investigator, in this case, Martin Weisskopf of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.

IXPE’s total cost, which includes funding for everything from a launch vehicle to flight operations to data analysis after the mission, is $188 million. Liftoff is scheduled for sometime in 2020.

The spacecraft and launch services will be handled by Ball Aerospace of Bloomfield, Colorado. Polarization sensitive X-ray detectors, developed in Italy, will be provided by the Italian Space Agency.



Laurel Kornfeld is an amateur astronomer and freelance writer from Highland Park, NJ, who enjoys writing about astronomy and planetary science. She studied journalism at Douglass College, Rutgers University, and earned a Graduate Certificate of Science from Swinburne University’s Astronomy Online program. Her writings have been published online in The Atlantic, Astronomy magazine’s guest blog section, the UK Space Conference, the 2009 IAU General Assembly newspaper, The Space Reporter, and newsletters of various astronomy clubs. She is a member of the Cranford, NJ-based Amateur Astronomers, Inc. Especially interested in the outer solar system, Laurel gave a brief presentation at the 2008 Great Planet Debate held at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, MD.

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