By: I. Toledo
IXPE’s stunning first image is revealed this February
On December 9th, 2021, NASA together with the Italian Space Agency launched the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer, the IXPE, into space. The IXPE is the first space observatory dedicated to studying the polarization of cosmic X-rays coming from certain regions such as black holes, neutron stars and pulsars. Its goal is to help astrologers find out how X-ray light is oriented as it travels through space.
This February, marking two months since its launch, the probe has captured its first image, and it has certainly exceeded expectations!
The image is of Cassiopeia A, the remnant of a supernova explosion caused by the collapse of a massive star in the 17th century. The version above shows X-ray emissions of various intensities, proving for the first time that the amount of polarization varies across the supernova remnant. This astounding discovery allowed researchers to start creating a first-of-its-kind X-ray polarization map of Cassiopeia A, which will hopefully finally reveal how X-rays are produced in it.
“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 Paolo Soffitta, the Italian principal investigator for IXPE at the National Institute of Astrophysics (INAF) in Rome.
As shown above, scientists also combined some of the first X-ray data collected by the IXPE, together with high-energy X-ray data from NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory, which reveals the presence of either a black hole or a neutron star at the center of Cassiopeia A. A cloud of assorted matter created by the shock waves caused by the explosion of the supernova can be seen, glowing brilliantly in X-ray light.
“IXPE's future polarization images should unveil the mechanisms at the heart of this famous cosmic accelerator,” said Roger Romani, an IXPE co-investigator 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.”
Memories to honour
Now that we have mentioned one of 2022’s first space achievements, it is worth remembering a major event on space exploration’s history that has just grown a year older in the past month.
On January 27th, the Apollo 1 launch pad fire completed its 55th anniversary. That same date but in 1967 was when one of the worst tragedies in the history of spaceflight took place, where the crew of Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee were killed in a fire in the Apollo Command Module during a preflight test at Cape Canaveral. This mission was the first ever of the U.S. Apollo program, undertaking to land the first man on the moon.
The tragedy marks a dark day for NASA, as it was its first major disaster, however, it was also extremely significant in order to address greatly necessary changes in spaceship design. This includes the banning of flammable materials inside of crew capsules and the improvement of hatches, which are now easier to open so that astronauts can escape quickly in case of an emergency, making spacecrafts much safer than before, therefore enabling the success of 6 of the Apollo missions that came after it.
So, what’s next?
An exciting year definitely lies ahead with several space missions expected to launch in 2022. Just in March, there are many important occurrences to look out for, such as: