IXPE X-ray telescope begins two-year mission to study extreme objects
NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) X-ray space telescope has roared into orbit to start its planned two-year mission studying polarized X-rays from a variety of "extreme and mysterious" cosmic sources. On December 9, at 1:00 am EST, the spacecraft lifted off from LC-39A at the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral in Florida atop a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket.
The launch of the IXPE mission went off without any major delays and the spacecraft separated from the second stage 33 minutes after launch, placing it into an orbit around the equator at an altitude of 372 miles (600 km), where it will circle the Earth once every 90 minutes. After separation, the spacecraft deployed its solar arrays and began transmitting telemetry at the 40-minute mark.
The IXPE launch was unusual in that its 730-lb (330-kg) mass was much less than the capacity of the Falcon 9 rocket, but was required because the mission profile required IXPE to go into an orbit of exactly 0° inclination to the equator.
Because Cape Canaveral sits at 28° north of the equator, the Falcon 9 had to launch due east, go into a parking orbit, and then use the remaining fuel to alter the inclination of its orbit toward the equator. In this orbit, the craft will be isolated from the South Atlantic Anomaly of the Van Allen radiation belt, which could interfere with observations.
IXPE is a joint mission by NASA and the Italian Space Agency designed to study high-energy objects in space, including black holes, neutron stars, pulsars, supernova remnants, magnetars, quasars, and galactic nuclei through the observation of polarized X-rays for the first time. To do this, the craft is equipped with three identical X-ray telescopes set parallel on a long boom to give the proper focal length between the collectors and the gas-filled imagers in the aft section.
"IXPE represents another extraordinary first," says Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate. "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. Each NASA spacecraft is carefully chosen to target brand new observations enabling new science, and IXPE is going to show us the violent universe around us – such as exploding stars and the black holes at the center of galaxies – in ways we’ve never been able to see it."