The space telescope, with three important, made in Italy instruments aboard, was launched at dawn. It will conduct studies based on X-ray polarimetry

09 December 2021

A lot of Italian science aboard the IXPE (Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer) satellite, born from the exclusive partnership between the NASA and the Italian Space Agency (ASI), which took off on time this morning, at 7.00 AM (Italian time), from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. A Falcon 9 carrier rocket, by the private company SpaceX, was used for the launch, which was attended by the ASI president, Giorgio Saccoccia, and the NASA administrator, Bill Nelson.

IXPE is the first mission which is fully dedicated at studying the universe through X-ray polarization, and to do so it will use an entirely “made in Italy” technology. Three telescopes have been installed aboard IXPE, with detectors funded by the ASI and developed by a team of scientists from the National Institute for Nuclear Physics (INFN) and the National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF).

The three Gas Pixel Detectors represent the core of the three Gas Pixel Detectors, next-generation detectors which take advantage of a technology developed over the last 15 years and the skills gained by the INFN in the field of particle physics and the INAF in the study of the high-energy universe. Thanks to its innovative technology, IXPE will not only be able to measure the image and energy of celestial sources, but will also be able to obtain, for the first time, direct indications on the characteristics of the electromagnetic fields associated with them.

“The NASA and the Italian Space Agency (ASI), the United States and Italy have a long tradition of bilateral cooperation on successful space mission, and the IXPE mission is another virtuous example – as recalled by the president of the Italian Space Agency, Giorgio Saccoccia – of the Italian capability to work with international partners for the global growth of space activities. Furthermore, we are particularly proud of being able to deliver IXPE’s innovative scientific instruments on time, despite the challenge of the pandemic: a true demonstration of the excellence of the mission’s Italian team. Now the word goes to science, to new discoveries made possible by our country’s space commitment”.

“IXPE will observe the universe in a new light, in the true sense of the word, and this will be made possible by its innovative, all-Italian technological “heart”, which is the result of a long and important research and development work, entirely conducted in-house, in our laboratories of the INFN sections in Pisa and Turin”, underlines Antonio Zoccoli, president of the INFN. “We must be proud of the start of this mission, even more so if we think of the difficult situation in which we operated to complete the work within schedule. Therefore, I would also like to thank all those who made it possible”, concludes Zoccoli.

"The IXPE mission in partnership with the NASA represents a key milestone, which enhances the great tradition of Italian astrophysics in the study of the Universe with X and gamma rays, as it already happened with the BeppoSAX and AGILE space missions and the participation in the Fermi telescope", says Marco Tavani, president of the National Institute for Astrophysics. “The high energy astrophysics community had been waiting for an X-polarimetry instrument for decades. Now Italy is conducting the main part of the IXPE mission and it will be exciting to see the first results: a long-awaited moment, and we are sure it will not disappoint expectations.

The satellite was placed in a circular equatorial orbit, at about 600 km altitude, with an inclination of just 0.2 degrees. During the first two years of the mission, IXPE will open a new astrophysics “window” by carrying out, for the first time, highly sensitive polarization measurements from celestial sources emitting in X-rays. The mission’s main targets will be active galactic nuclei (AGN), microquasars, pulsars and pulsar wind nebulae, magnetars, binaries in X-rays, supernova remnants and galactic center. IXPE will provide contemporary measurements of polarization, variability, spectral data and images, thus allowing to study the geometry and physical processes of radiation emission and acceleration of particles, in environments with extreme magnetic and gravitational fields.

IXPE is a joint NASA/ASI mission, selected by the NASA on January 3rd, 2017 and part of the SMEX (Small Mission Explorer) space program. Thanks to the contribution of the OHB-I industrial component, the ASI was able to deliver the flight models to the NASA within the established times, as requested by the participation in the SMEX space programs.

As well as managing the Italian participation in the IXPE program, the ASI provides the “Luigi Broglio” space center (BSC) in Malindi, Kenya, as the primary ground station for satellite tracking, supported also by Telespazio and the Space Science Data Center (SSDC) at the headquarters of the Agency in Rome for the activities of scientific data processing and analysis.

Specifically, the BSC successfully performed two important supports: 1) at 06:00 AM (UTC) the support to SpaceX – Falcon 9, as part of the partnership between the ASI and SpaceX for TT&C (Telemetry, Tracking and Command) activities from the BSC; 2) at 06:31 AM (UTC), after its separation from the Falcon 9 carrier rocket, the support to the IXPE satellite, as part of the ASI-NASA partnership.

The center conducted all the required upgrade activities to make the Malindi Ground Station compliant with the NASA’s requirements. Furthermore, it supported the mission in all the stages of pre-launch operations, including the RFCT (Radio Frequency Compatibility Test) at the NASA, and will continue to support the acquisition of scientific data throughout the satellite’s nominal life. To conduct the activities related to the provision of such services, the ASI makes use of its own staff, employed at the Roma office and at the BSC, and of the industrial support offered by Telespazio, as part of the two Operations and Maintenance contracts of the Malindi BSC.

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