Watch NASA's IXPE Telescope Launch Into Space to Study Black Holes

NASA's black hole-probing IXPE spacecraft has successfully been deployed in space, and videos of the launch are available to watch online.

The spacecraft was blasted into space on board a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that took off from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida at 1 a.m. ET on Thursday.

A NASA video from Twitter, below, shows the moment of liftoff.

Shortly afterwards, the space agency released another clip of the telescope separating from its rocket and deploying its solar panels as it prepared to communicate with Earth.

Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard & Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, then tweeted that IXPE was successfully talking to teams on the ground.

IXPE is a joint undertaking between NASA and the Italian space agency Agenzia Spaziale Italiana (ASI). Its purpose is to study X-rays, and specifically the polarization of those X-rays.

In simple terms, X-ray polarization refers to the vibration of X-rays as they travel through space. By measuring X-ray polarization, scientists are able to learn more about where the rays came from in the first place.

We know that X-rays are produced from violent cosmological sources such as neutron stars, pulsars and black holes. Therefore, observing these rays could give us more detailed views of these objects.

Specifically, it is hoped that IXPE will be able to find out more about the magnetic fields of extreme cosmic objects like magnetars, the physical processes that lead to X-ray emission, and the physical effects of gravitational, electric, and magnetic fields at their extreme limits.

"Today, we can only guess what we will find," Paul Hertz, the Astrophysics Division director for the Science Mission Directorate, said on the IXPE website.

NASA already has a tool capable of measuring the polarization of X-rays—the OSO-8 orbiting solar observatory. But IXPE is due to improve the sensitivity of OSO-8 by two orders of magnitude. This is thanks to the spacecraft's multiple on-board X-ray polarization detectors, which were provided by ASI.

Now that IXPE is in space, it will enter a 540 kilometer circular orbit around the Earth and carry out its mission for at least two years, peering at the center of galaxies and other exciting objects.

However, NASA missions have a tendency to extend beyond their initial length. The Hubble telescope mission, for example, was designed to spend at least 15 years in operation. At the time of writing it had been in space for more than twice that time and it's still working today.

IXPE launch
The launch of IXPE pictured here on the morning of December 9, 2021, at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The IXPE mission will help us learn more about black holes and other violent objects. Cory S. Huston/NASA