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NASA has selected a science mission that will allow
astronomers to explore, for the first time, the hidden details of some
of the most extreme and exotic astronomical objects, such as stellar and
supermassive black holes, neutron stars and pulsars.
Objects such as black holes can heat surrounding gases to more than a
million degrees. The high-energy X-ray radiation from this gas can be
polarized – vibrating in a particular direction. The Imaging X-ray
Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) mission will fly three space telescopes with
cameras capable of measuring the polarization of these cosmic X-rays,
allowing scientists to answer fundamental questions about these
turbulent and extreme environments where gravitational, electric and
magnetic fields are at their limits.
“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.
“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.”
NASA's Astrophysics Explorers Program requested proposals for new
missions in September 2014. Fourteen proposals were submitted, and three
mission concepts were selected for additional review by a panel of
agency and external scientists. NASA determined the IXPE proposal
provided the best science potential and most feasible development plan.
The mission, slated for launch in 2020, will cost $188 million. This
figure includes the cost of the launch vehicle and post-launch
operations and data analysis. Principal Investigator Martin Weisskopf of
NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, will lead
the mission. Ball Aerospace in Broomfield, Colorado, will provide the
spacecraft and mission integration. The Italian Space Agency will
contribute the polarization sensitive X-ray detectors, which were
developed in Italy.
NASA's Explorers Program provides frequent, low-cost access to space
using principal investigator-led space science investigations relevant
to the agency’s astrophysics and heliophysics programs. The program has
launched more than 90 missions, including Explorer 1 in 1958, which
discovered the Van Allen radiation belts around the Earth, and the
Cosmic Background Explorer mission, which led to a Nobel Prize. NASA's
Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the
Explorers Program for the agency's Science Mission Directorate.