X-ray image of Cassiopeia A from the IXPE (magenta) and Chandra (blue) telescopes. Credit: NASA/CXC/SAO/IXPE

NASA’s Cosmic X-Ray Spy Delivers First Cosmic Photons

The new X-ray telescope IXPE has transmitted the first scientific data to Earth, thanks to which astronomers have built a map of the X-ray intensity from the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A. It is expected that scientists will soon create a map of the polarization of X-ray emission from the nebula using the telescope.


NASA revealed the first image of the new X-Ray Telescope

IXPE (Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer) was launched into space at the end of last year and operates in Earth orbit at an altitude of 600 kilometers. The task of the observatory is to measure the polarization of X-rays from pulsars, magnetars, plerions, binary systems with black holes, active galactic nuclei, quasars, and supernova remnants. Thus, astrophysicists want to learn more about the processes associated with such objects.

X-ray intensity distribution of Cassiopeia A according to the IXPE telescope. Credit: NASA
X-ray intensity distribution of Cassiopeia A according to the IXPE telescope. Credit: NASA

The first target of IXPE observations was Cassiopeia A, the remnant of the explosion of a massive star (about 16 times heavier than the Sun), which is located at a distance of 11 thousand light-years from Earth. The light from the explosion reached us about 325 years ago. The expanding nebula is now estimated to be ten light-years across, with a neutron star at its center. By the way, Cassiopeia A was also the first target for the Chandra X-ray telescope.

IXPE observed the nebula from January 11 to 18, 2022. Scientists have already built a map of the X-ray intensity from the remnant using the collected data, data from polarimetric observations have yet to be analyzed. This is expected to allow astrophysicists to create the first X-ray polarization map of a supernova remnant and to understand the mechanisms by which radiation is generated from it.

Composite image of Cassiopeia A from 2005 made from combined data from Chandra, Hubble, and Spitzer. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
Composite image of Cassiopeia A from 2005 made from combined data from Chandra, Hubble, and Spitzer. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

More about the IXPE Telescope

The development of the IXPE (Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer) project was carried out as part of the NASA SMEX program, its total cost was $ 214 million. This small-class space observatory is designed to measure the polarization of X-rays from a wide variety of astrophysical objects – pulsars, magnetars, plerions, binary systems with black holes, active galactic nuclei, quasars, and supernova remnants. It is expected that this will help to understand the nature and properties of such objects.

Artist's impression of the IXPE X-Ray Telescope. Credit: NASA
Artist’s impression of the IXPE X-Ray Telescope. Credit: NASA

The total mass of the observatory is 325 kilograms; it is equipped with three telescopes mounted on a retractable truss and operating in the photon energy range of 2–8 kiloelectronvolts. The device is powered by a solar panel. IXPE will operate in a nearly equatorial circular orbit, at an altitude of 555-620 kilometers.

The launch of IXPE took place on December 9, 2021, from the launch pad LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center, the observatory was launched into space by the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch vehicle. The initial science program is expected to last about two years but as usual, extensions are possible.


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Sources:

Gohd, C. (2022, February 16). 1st image from NASA’s new IXPE X-ray telescope looks like a ball of Purple Lightning. Space.com.
Hicks, J. (2022, February 15). NASA reveals first images from its new X-ray mission. The Verge.
Mohon, L. (2022, February 11). NASA’s IXPE sends First Science Image. NASA.
Starr, M. (n.d.). New X-ray space telescope shares its first, historic glimpse of the cosmos. ScienceAlert.

Written by Vladislav Tchakarov

Hello, my name is Vladislav and I am glad to have you here on Curiosmos. As a history student, I have a strong passion for history and science, and the opportunity to research and write in this field on a daily basis is a dream come true.

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