SpaceX launches new X-ray satellite to study black holes and supernovas

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — SpaceX’s latest launch could help scientists study the origins of life in our universe.

Around midnight CST Wednesday, the agency sent NASA’s newest satellite into orbit. The Imaging X-Ray Polarimetry Explorer, or IXPE, will allow scientists to use X-rays to observe the black holes, quasars and supernovas.

“With X-rays, you see things that are the most violent dynamic things in the universe,” says astronomer Michelle Thaller with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. “In order to naturally emit an X-ray in space, gas has to be in the millions of degrees.”

IXPE uses three telescopes outfitter with what are essentially polarized sunglasses to observe X-rays in the distant reaches of space. Thaller says a satellite is needed because Earth’s atmosphere prevents X-rays from reaching us.

Why do we need to observe X-rays?

“X-ray polarimetry is actually a way that you can visualize magnetic fields, magnetic fields change the way light behaves.” Magnetic fields surround supernovas, black holes and quasars. “These are giant black holes, black holes that are billions of times the mass of the Sun, and there are very, very intense magnetic fields.”

Why should you care about a satellite?

Thaller says that observing deep space is important for a few reasons. Neutron stars, which are the collapsed cores of super massive stars, can damage the Earth. “Local neutron stars (have had) little star quakes on them. And we actually noticed that it blew off the top of our atmosphere.”

Another major reason this research is important: it ties into the origins of the universe. “You have elements in you right now that were formed by neutron stars. That’s incredible. So it’s the richness of actually answering the question ‘Where do we come from?'”

What’s next for space exploration?

Thaller says that NASA hopes that IXPE will continue its mission for another decade. Later this month, NASA will launch the James Webb Space Telescope. This telescope will be able to view distant galaxies and even the atmospheres of distant planets. The telescope is roughly 100 times more powerful than the Hubble Space Telescope, according to NASA. The telescope costs about $10 billion and more than a decade to develop.

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