Thursday, October 20, 2022

NASA’S IXPE Helps Unlock the Secrets of Famous Exploded Star: Cassiopeia A

NASA’S IXPE Helps Unlock the Secrets of Famous Exploded Star: Cassiopeia A

For the first time, astronomers have measured and mapped polarized X-rays from the remains of an exploded star, using NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE). The findings, which come from observations of a stellar remnant called Cassiopeia A, shed new light on the nature of young supernova remnants, which accelerate particles close to the speed of light.

Launched on Dec. 9, 2021, IXPE, a collaboration between NASA and the Italian Space Agency, is the first satellite that can measure the polarization of X-ray light with this level of sensitivity and clarity.

All forms of light—from radio waves to gamma rays—can be polarized. Unlike the polarized sunglasses we use to cut the glare from sunlight bouncing off a wet road or windshield, IXPE’s detectors maps the tracks of incoming X-ray light. Scientists can use these individual track records to figure out the polarization, which tells the story of what the X-rays went through.

Cassiopeia A (Cas A for short) was the first object IXPE observed after it began collecting data. One of the reasons Cas A was selected is that its shock waves—like a sonic boom generated by a jet—are some of the fastest in the Milky Way. The shock waves were generated by the supernova explosion that destroyed a massive star after it collapsed. Light from the blast swept past Earth more than three hundred years ago.

This composite image shows the Cas A supernova remnant, a structure resulting from the explosion of a star in the Cassiopeia constellation. The blues represent data from the Chandra Observatory, the turquoise is from NASA's Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (called IXPE), and the gold is courtesy of the Hubble Telescope.

Image Credit: X-ray: Chandra: NASA/CXC/SAO, IXPE: NASA/MSFC/J. Vink et al.; Optical: NASA/STScI

Release Date: October 19, 2022

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