Nasa’s next mission will use X-rays to unlock the secret nature of black holes

'This is going to be groundbreaking', one scientist said. 'We’ll be analysing the results for decades to come.'

Adam Smith
Wednesday 08 December 2021 21:49
NASA IXPE mission explained
Leer en Español

Nasa will be imminently launching a new satellite that will help scientists uncover the secrets of black holes.

The X-Ray Polarimetry Explorer mission (IXPE) will measure the radiation from the dense pits of gravity in distant space, scheduled to launch at 1am local eastern time, 6am GMT from the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida on a Falcon 9 rocket.

The craft, which will be the first space observatory of its kind, will look at the polarisation of X-rays from black holes and neutron stars through three identical telescopes.

Each one has a set of nested, cylindrical mirrors that feed the X-rays to a detector that then measures the amount, and direction, of the polarised light.

“The launch of IXPE marks a bold and unique step forward for X-ray astronomy,” said Dr Martin Weisskopf, IXPE’s principal investigator, in a statement. “IXPE will tell us more about the precise nature of cosmic X-ray sources than we can learn by studying their brightness and color spectrum alone.”

Polarising light carry with it information about where it originated, and what it passed through in order to reach its destination.

This is because normal light is comprised of waves of electric and magnetic field that, when they interact, vibrate at right angles to the direction the light is travelling in - and can move in any direction. Polarising light, however, is made of electric fields that can only vibrate in one direction.

Analysing polarised x-rays will give scientists new insight into the nature of black holes, such as how they spin, what gives a pulsar its brightness, and are the fundamental laws of physics consistent across the whole universe.

“This is going to be groundbreaking in terms of X-ray data acquisition”, Dr Weisskopf said.

“We’ll be analysing the results for decades to come”.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in