The Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE), an international collaboration between NASA and the Italian Space Agency (ASI), has captured an image of Cassiopeia A, the youngest known supernova remnant in our Milky Way Galaxy.
IXPE is NASA’s first mission dedicated to measuring the polarization of X-rays from the most extreme and mysterious objects in the Universe: supernova remnants, supermassive black holes, and dozens of other high-energy objects.
The observatory launched December 9, 2021 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
It now orbits 600 km (370 miles) above Earth’s equator and all its instruments are functioning well.
IXPE builds on and complements the scientific discoveries of other telescopes, including NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory.
It carries three state-of-the-art space telescopes with special sensitive detectors.
A key measurement that astrophysicists will make with the observatory is called polarization, a way of looking at how X-ray light is oriented as it travels through space. The polarization of light contains clues to the environment where the light originated.
IXPE’s instruments will also measure the energy, the time of arrival, and the position in the sky of the X-rays from cosmic sources.
“IXPE represents another extraordinary first,” said Dr. Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters.
“Together with our partners in Italy and around the world, we’ve added a new space observatory to our fleet that will shape our understanding of the Universe for years to come.”
On January 11, 2022, IXPE focused its X-ray eyes on Cassiopeia A, a remnant that blew up as a supernova more than 11,000 years ago.
The shock waves from the explosion have swept up surrounding gas, heating it to high temperatures and accelerating cosmic ray particles to make a cloud that glows in X-ray light.
Other telescopes have studied Cassiopeia A before, but IXPE will allow scientists to examine it in a new way.
“The IXPE image of Cassiopeia A is as historic as the Chandra image of the same supernova remnant,” said IXPE principal investigator Dr. Martin Weisskopf, a researcher at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.
“It demonstrates IXPE’s potential to gain new, never-before-seen information about Cassiopeia A, which is under analysis right now.”
“The IXPE image of Cassiopeia A is bellissima, and we look forward to analyzing the polarimetry data to learn even more about this supernova remnant,” said Dr. Paolo Soffitta, the Italian principal investigator for IXPE at Italy’s National Institute of Astrophysics.
With polarization data from Cassiopeia A, IXPE will allow astrophysicists to see, for the first time, how the amount of polarization varies across the supernova remnant, which is about 10 light-years in diameter.
“IXPE’s future polarization images should unveil the mechanisms at the heart of this famous cosmic accelerator,” said IXPE co-investigator Dr. Roger Romani, a researcher at Stanford University.
“To fill in some of those details, we’ve developed a way to make IXPE’s measurements even more precise using machine learning techniques.”
“We’re looking forward to what we’ll find as we analyze all the data.”
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