NASA’s New X-ray Space Telescope Its first image was taken, showing the pulsating electromagnetic auroras of a supernova explosion.
The Explorer X-ray Imaging (IXPE) was launched into orbit aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on December 9, then spent a month calibrating its instruments and adapting to the space environment. When it was finally ready to collect data, mission monitors pointed their mirrors toward a supernova called Cassiopeia A – the remnant of a vibrant gas cloud of a star that exploded in the 17th century.
The first photo was released on Monday. The gas cloud is about 10 light years across. In visible light, it doesn’t actually glow the amazing purple color shown above. This is the color chosen by NASA researchers to represent how strong the X-ray light is in different parts of the cloud.
In the image below, they used a wider range of colors to show the difference in the X-rays.
When the star exploded, its shock waves heated the gas in its vicinity and accelerated nearby particles, causing them to glow in X-ray light. Somewhere in the middle of these gas clouds is a super-dense object that formed when the former star’s core collapsed. It could be a black hole or a neutron star.
IXPE is set to spend at least two years studying the most extreme and mysterious things in the universe – nebulae, supernovae, neutron stars and black holes. It is NASA’s first major X-ray space telescope since the Chandra X-ray Observatory was launched into orbit in 1999. The first image of this telescope was also taken by Cassiopeia A.
Martin C. Weisskopf, who leads the IXPE team at NASA, said at press release. “It demonstrates IXPE’s ability to gain unprecedented new information about Cassiopeia A, which is now under analysis.”
Unlike Chandra, IXPE focuses on polarization – the direction in which X-ray light waves are directed as they travel through space. This information can tell scientists a lot about how X-rays are produced and allow them to see how the radiation varies across the body they are studying. In this case, it could provide a new peek into what’s going on inside those gas clouds and explain why they emit such powerful X-rays.
“The IXPE image of Cassiopeia A is bellissima, and we look forward to analyzing the polarimetry data to learn more about the supernova remnant,” said Paolo Sovita, Italian IXPE team leader at the National Institute of Astrophysics (INAF) in Rome. In the press release.
The IXPE team is now working on using the telescope data to build a map of polarized X-rays through the supernova cloud.