This image of the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A combines some of the first X-ray data collected by NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (magenta), with X-ray data from the Chandra X-Ray Observatory (blue). NASA/CXC/SAO/IXPE
A little more than two months after its launch into space, NASA’s newest explorer, Explorer X-ray Imaging, or IXPE, has shared its first images.
And they are amazing. The images offer a glimpse of Cassiopeia A, the famous remnant of a supernova, or exploding star.
Bright purple gaseous clouds can be seen around the star’s remnant. These clouds were created when shock waves from the explosion heated the surrounding gas to incredibly high temperatures, accelerating high-energy particles called cosmic rays.
Paolo Sovita, Italian IXPE Principal Investigator at the National Institute for Astrophysics in Rome, in a statement.
The spacecraft, a collaborative effort between NASA and the Italian Space Agency, carries three telescopes. Although Cassiopeia A has been observed before with other telescopes, IXPE is designed to reveal new insights about some of the most extreme objects in the universe, such as supernovae, black holes, and neutron stars.
The remnant of Cassiopeia A is a supernova located 11,000 light-years from Earth. It is now a giant expanding bubble of hot gas, the youngest known remnant of a supernova explosion, dating back 340 years, in our Milky Way. Light from this supernova first reached Earth in the 1770s.
X-rays are high-energy light waves that are generated from extremes. In space, these extreme conditions include strong magnetic fields, collisions between objects, explosions, scorching temperatures, and rapid rotation.
This light is practically encoded by the signature of what it created, but the Earth’s atmosphere prevents the X-rays from reaching Earth. This is why scientists rely on X-ray telescopes in space.
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In the new image, X-ray data previously captured by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory can be seen in blue. Chandra launched in 1999 and immediately set its sights on Cassiopeia A, revealing 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 stellar death.
“The IXPE image of Cassiopeia A is as historic as the Chandra image of the same supernova remnant,” Martin Weiskopf, IXPE principal investigator based at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, said in a statement. .
“It demonstrates IXPE’s ability to obtain unprecedented new information on Cassiopeia A, which is now under analysis.”
NASA’s new mission orbits 600 kilometers (370 miles) above Earth’s equator and has just completed a month-long commissioning and instrumentation testing phase. 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 causing its particles to spread out.
Each polarized light carries the unique character of its source and what it passes through along the way. While unpolarized light waves can vibrate in any direction, polarized light only vibrates in one direction.
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Data collected by IXPE on Cassiopeia A can help scientists measure how much the polarization varies in the rest, which spans 10 light-years.