The goal of the IXPE space observatory, recently launched on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from Kennedy Space Center in Florida, is to expand the X-ray view of the Cosmos and investigate the origin and destiny of our Universe. Imaging X-Ray Polarimetry Explorer, this is its full name, is the first mission entirely dedicated to the measurement of X-ray polarization.
A collaboration between NASA and Italian Space Agency (ASI), IXPE will use an entirely “made in Italy” technology for three important instruments installed on board the satellite: innovative telescopes funded by ASI and developed by a team of scientists from the National Institute for Nuclear Physics (INFN) and the National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF).
“NASA and the Italian Space Agency (ASI), the United States and Italy have a long tradition of bilateral cooperation on successful space missions, and the IXPE mission is another virtuous example of Italy’s capacity to work with international partners for the global growth of space activities,” said Giorgio Saccoccia, president of the Italian Space Agency. “We are also particularly proud to have been able to deliver IXPE’s innovative scientific instrumentation on time, despite the challenge of the pandemic: a true demonstration of excellence by the Italian team. Now it’s time for science, for new discoveries made possible by our country’s commitment to Space,” the ASI president concluded.
The central element of the telescopes is represented by the three Gas Pixel Detectors: next generation detectors based on a technology developed over the last 15 years that takes advantage of the expertise acquired by INFN in the field of particle physics and by INAF in the study of the High Energy Universe. The technological “heart” of the detectors is an electronic readout chip designed and developed in the INFN laboratories which works like a camera for tracks of electrons radiating at lower energies.
Thanks to its innovative technology, this space-based observatory will be able to measure the image and energy of celestial sources and obtain, for the first time, direct indications on the characteristics of the electromagnetic fields associated with them. The satellite was launched into an equatorial and circular orbit at an altitude of about 600 km with an inclination of only 0.2 degrees: for two years, it will mainly study active galactic nuclei, microquasars, pulsars and pulsar wind nebulae, magnetars, accreting X-ray binaries, supernova remnants and the galactic center.
The IXPE joint mission is part of NASA Small Mission Explorer (SMEX) Space programme. ASI oversees the Italian participation in the IXPE mission and provides its Malindi ground station in Kenya for satellite tracking, also supported by Telespazio, and its Space Science Data Center (SSDC) at ASI headquarters in Rome for science data processing and analysis.