On Monday, NASA released the first scientific images from its new Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer, or IXPE. A look at the Cassiopeia A supernova — the bright remnants of a star that exploded into space in the 17th century — the image provides a first glimpse of what the space agency’s new X-ray mission will teach us about some of the most extreme events in the world. the cosmos, such as supernova explosions and cosmic collisions.
Launched in early December, IXPE is NASA’s first mission dedicated to studying X-ray polarization, or X-ray light whose vibrations are all aligned in one direction. The explorer builds on the work of the Chandra X-ray Observatory by using polarization to help explain exactly where the X-ray light produced by space events comes from.
The first image presented by NASA shows X-rays of varying intensities that IXPE mapped over the supernova in mid-January. Researchers will study the data to create a first-of-its-kind X-ray polarization map of Cassiopeia A, which will provide insight into X-ray production at Cassiopeia A.
“The future polarization images of IXPE should reveal the mechanisms at the heart of this famous cosmic accelerator,” Roger Romani, a co-investigator with IXPE, said in a press release. “To fill in some of those details, we’ve developed a way to make IXPE’s measurements even more accurate using machine learning techniques. We look forward to what we will find when we analyze all the data.”
A second image shows the Cassiopeia A supernova in bright magenta and blue. The image uses combined data collected from both the IXPE (the magenta region) and the Chandra X-ray Observatory (the blue regions). Chandra’s data, collected shortly after that telescope was first launched in 1999, revealed evidence of an object such as a black hole or neutron star at the center of the supernova remnant.
Cassiopeia A is the first of about 40 objects NASA says it will study during IXPE’s first year. In addition to exploring supernovae, the mission could answer questions about objects like black holes, including how they rotate and whether the black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy ever fed on surrounding material. Because space events cannot be simulated in a lab, IXPE can help answer important questions, small and large, about the physics of extreme environments.