NASA is launching a new state-of-the-art mission this week, attempting to unlock some of the big secrets of our galaxy.
Some of the bigger mysteries of the universe will be investigated using new “groundbreaking” technology, as NASA launches its latest satellite this week.
Working in tandem with the Italian Space Agency, NASA announced its X-ray-observing mission will launch on Friday (AEDT), and it aims to hand astronomers an important new tool for studying energetic objects across the universe.
“The launch of the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) marks a bold and unique step forward for X-ray astronomy,” IXPE’s principal investigator Dr Martin Weisskopf said 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 colour spectrum alone.”
How X-ray technology works
The satellite will specifically measure the polarisation of X-rays from various cosmic sources.
They are an often missed aspect of space research.
The satellite’s eyes on the universe include sensitive polarisation detectors, which were made in Italy. The telescopes will observe the X-rays and feed them into the detectors, which can capture images and measure their polarisation.
Incredibly, scientists have found polarised light bears the unique stamp of its source and can be used to track objects that have passed through it. While regular waves of light can vibrate in any direction, polarised light only vibrates in one direction.
The development marks a major leap in scientists’ ongoing mission to understand the vast depths of the galaxy.
“The team will continue work on developing and testing changes to instrument software that would allow them to conduct science operations even if they encounter several lost synchronisation messages in the future,” Dr Weisskopf said.
“This is going to be groundbreaking in terms of X-ray data acquisition. We’ll be analysing the results for decades to come.”
According to CNN, the technology could also help scientists reveal new answers to fundamental questions about physics.
“IXPE will help us test and refine our theories of how the universe works,” Dr Weisskopf said. “There may be even more exciting answers ahead than the ones we’ve hypothesised. Better yet, we may find whole lists of new questions to ask.”
Black hole detection made easier
The IXPE will also be used to better detect remnants of exploded stars, such as black holes and neutron stars.
The mission comes as ANU astrophysicist and cosmologist Dr Brad Tucker detected 35 more collisions of black holes in our observable universe, bringing the total to 90 since the first was discovered in 2015.
“Now, when small black holes collide, they produce ripples of gravity through space and very sensitive lasers and mirrors on the Earth can feel this very slight shift,” he told Sky News Australia last month.
Dr Tucker said these mirrors helped to find black holes scientists “previously couldn’t see”.
He said Australian scientists in particular are getting better at identifying black holes and putting the “black hole family picture together”.
Black holes on collision course
New findings also found Earth’s closet black holes are on a collision course, and will likely form a supermassive black hole. Fortunately for life on Earth, the two regions of space are 89 million light-years away.
Despite the huge distance, they are still the closest black holes to Earth and their proximity indicates that they are moving towards each other and will collide and merge – forming a supermassive black hole.
The previous closest supermassive black hole pairing is found 470 million light-years from Earth.
Astronomer Dr Karina Voggel from the Strasbourg Observatory in France said there is valuable information that can be learned from observing astronomical objects.
“This system has the two closest supermassive black holes ever discovered.
“One of these giant black holes is at the centre of the galaxy where we expect them typically,” she told Newsweek.
“The second black hole is not in the centre but a little bit offset from it. We have never found a supermassive black hole pair at such a small distance to each other.”