One of the miracles of modern astronomy is the ability to ‘see’ wavelengths of light that human eyes can’t. Last week, astronomers put that superpower to good use and released five new images showcasing the universe in every wavelength from X-ray to infrared.
Combining data from both Earth- and ground-based telescopes, the five images reveal a diverse set of astronomical phenomena, including the galactic centre, the death throes of stars, and distant galaxies traversing the cosmos.
Located about 6,500 light-years away in the constellation Taurus resides one of the best-studied cosmological objects known as the Crab Nebula (aka. Messier 1). Originally discovered in the 18th century by English astronomer John Bevis in 1731, the Crab Nebula became the first object included by astronomer Charles Messier in his catalog of Deep Sky Objects. Because of its extreme nature, scientists have been studying the Crab Nebula for decades to learn more about its magnetic field, its high-energy emissions (x-rays), and how these accelerate particles to close to the speed of light.
Astronomers have been particularly interested in studying the polarization of the x-rays produced by the pulsar and what that can tell us about the nebula’s magnetic field. When studies were first conducted in the 1970s, astronomers had to rely on a sounding rocket to get above Earth’s atmosphere and measure the polarization using special sensors. Recently, an international team of astronomers used data obtained by NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) to create a detailed map of the Crab Nebula’s magnetic field that has resolved many long-standing mysteries about the object.
It’s first light for one of the newest space observatories! The Imaging X-Ray Polarimetry Explorer team has released their first image, taken after a month-long commissioning phase for the spacecraft. And it’s a beauty.
IXPE looked at a favorite target among space observatories, the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A. While x-rays are invisible to human eyes, the amount of magenta color in this image corresponds to the intensity of X-ray light observed. Needless to say, it’s intense with high energy x-rays.
A new mission has launched to study some the most intriguing secrets of the universe. No, not THAT spacecraft (JWST is scheduled for launch on December 22). Another new and exciting mission is called Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) and it will allow scientists to explore the hidden details of some of the most extreme and high-energy objects in the cosmos, such as black holes, neutron stars, pulsars and dozens of other objects.