Just over two months after launching into space, NASA’s newest explorer — the Imaging X-Ray Polarimetry Explorer, or IXPE — has shared its first-ever images.
And they are stunning. The images offer a glimpse of Cassiopeia A, the famous remnant of a supernova, or exploding star.
Clouds of bright purple gas can be seen around the remnants of the star. These clouds were created when the shock waves from the explosion heated the surrounding gas to incredibly high temperatures, accelerating high-energy particles called cosmic rays.
“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, Italian Principal Investigator for IXPE at the National Institute of astrophysics of Rome, in a statement.
The spacecraft, a collaborative effort between NASA and the Italian Space Agency, carries three telescopes. Although Cassiopeia A has already been observed using other telescopes, IXPE is designed to reveal new information about some of the most extreme objects in the universe, such as supernovae, black holes and neutron stars. .
The beautiful remnants of supernova Cassiopeia A are located about 11,000 light-years from Earth. It’s now a giant bubble of hot, expanding gas, and it’s the youngest known remnant of a supernova explosion, dating to 340 years ago, in our Milky Way galaxy. Light from this supernova first reached Earth in the 1670s.
X-rays are highly energetic light waves that arise from extremes. In space, these intense conditions include strong magnetic fields, collisions between objects, explosions, scorching temperatures and rapid rotations.
This light is practically encoded with the signature of whatever created it, but the earth’s atmosphere prevents x-rays from reaching the ground. This is why scientists rely on X-ray telescopes in space.
What new data on Cassiopeia A could reveal
In the new image, X-ray data previously captured by NASA’s Chandra X-Ray Observatory can be seen in blue. Chandra was launched in 1999 and immediately set its sights on Cassiopeia A, revealing the presence of a black hole or neutron star at the center of the supernova remnant. Black holes and dense neutron stars are often created by the violent event of star death.
“The IXPE image of Cassiopeia A is as historic as the Chandra image of the same supernova remnant,” Martin C. Weisskopf, IXPE principal investigator based at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, said in a statement. .
“This demonstrates the potential for IXPE to obtain new, unpublished information about Cassiopeia A, which is currently being analyzed.”
NASA’s new mission orbits 600 kilometers above Earth’s equator and has just completed a month-long phase of commissioning and testing its instruments. Although IXPE is not as large as Chandra, it is the first space observatory of its kind. The satellite can see an often overlooked aspect of cosmic ray sources called polarization. Light becomes polarized when it passes through something that causes its particles to scatter.
All polarized light bears the unique mark of its source and what it has passed through along the way. While unpolarized light waves can vibrate in any direction, polarized light vibrates only in one direction.
The data that IXPE has collected on Cassiopeia A can help scientists measure the variation in polarization across the remnant, which is 10 light-years in diameter.
Using IXPE to study the polarization of cosmic X-rays could help scientists better understand the remnants of exploded stars, like black holes and neutron stars, their environments, and how they produce X-rays This perspective on extreme cosmic objects could also reveal the answers to larger fundamental questions about physics.