NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) mission launched at 1 am EST (06:00 GMT) Thursday on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
A joint effort with the Italian Space Agency, the IXPE observatory 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.
“IXPE represents another extraordinary first,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “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.”
The rocket performed as expected, with spacecraft separation taking place 33 minutes into flight. Approximately one minute later, the spacecraft unfurled its solar arrays. IXPE entered its orbit around Earth’s equator at an altitude of approximately 600 kilometres (372 miles). About 40 minutes after launch, mission operators received the first spacecraft telemetry data.
“It is an indescribable feeling to see something you’ve worked on for decades become real and launch into space,” said Martin Weisskopf, IXPE’s principal investigator at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Weisskopf came up with the idea for the spacecraft and has conducted seminal experiments in X-ray astronomy since the 1970s. “This is just the beginning for IXPE. We have much work ahead. But tonight, we celebrate!”
IXPE carries three state-of-the-art space telescopes with special polarization-sensitive detectors. Polarization is a property of light that holds clues to the environment from which the light originates. The new mission builds on and complements the scientific discoveries of other telescopes, including the Chandra X-ray Observatory, NASA’s flagship X-ray telescope. First light operations are scheduled to begin in January.
NASA Marshall manages the IXPE mission for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate as a project of the NASA’s Explorers Program. IXPE is an international collaboration between NASA, the Italian Space Agency, along with partners and providers in 12 other countries. Marshall built the three X-ray telescopes. The Italian Space Agency contributed IXPE’s polarization detectors. Ball Aerospace in Broomfield, Colorado, provided the spacecraft and manages spacecraft operations at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, manages the Explorers Program.