NASA Probes Black Holes And Cosmic X-rays In New Mission

NASA is allotting $188 million to create and launch a space telescope that will observe patterns in the high-energy X-ray radiation from black holes, neutron stars, pulsars, and other exotic astronomical objects.

The U.S. space agency chose the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer mission from a roster of three finalists in its Astrophysics Explorers Program, where it solicited proposals for new missions in September 2014 and received 14 entries. The IXPE mission offered “the best science potential” and the most feasible plan, according to NASA’s statement.

Triple-Telescope System For Black Hole Probe

IXPE’s three-telescope system equipped with cameras has been developed to measure the polarization of cosmic X-rays, allowing scientists a peak into extreme bodies that exist at the limits of gravitational, electric, as well as magnetic fields.

Paul Hertz, astrophysics division director for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA, said that while humans cannot directly observe the goings-on around or near black holes and similar objects, the polarization of X-rays emitted from their surroundings lends insight into their physics.

“IXPE will open a new window on the universe for astronomers to peer through,” he said.

The space mission is slated for a 2020 launch, with the $188 budget comprising launch vehicle and post-launch processes and data analysis costs. It will be led by principal investigator Martin Weisskopft, and spacecraft and mission integration will be conducted at Ball Aerospace in Colorado.

The Italian Space Agency, too, will contribute Italy-made X-ray detectors for the project.

As for launching IXPE into low-Earth orbit, the Pegasus air-launched rocket of Orbital ATK is deemed the leading option. The launch could also involve the Stratolaunch system of Vulcan Aerospace, poised to operate starting 2020 with financial backing from Seattle billionaire Paul Allen, Geekwire reported.

IXPE bested two Explorer-class finalists, namely PRAXyS and SPHEREx. The former would have likely used different instruments, while the latter would have done an all-sky infrared survey for searching cosmic inflation signs.

Of Black Holes And Space Programs

Black holes have always been an area of keen scientific interest, but they are known to absorb all light and matter as well as emit zero radiation, making it difficult to image and detect them amid a black background in the vast space.

Recently, however, researchers proposed a new method that may speed up the discovery of black holes.

Through combining standard astronomical tools microlensing and radio wave interferometry, a team from the University of Waterloo would detect and probe black holes as a system, not as the usual individual entities. The technique is expected to discover around 10 black holes a year, doubling the number of known ones in two years.

Following breakthroughs in 2016 – foremost of which is the creation and use of the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory for detecting gravitational waves – 2017 is viewed as an exciting year for U.S. space programs.

NASA’s proposed 2017 budget is at $19 billion, which down $300 million from previous year, but it is still considered an upgrade from the past decade when the space shuttle program ended.

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