IXPE set to ship to Florida for launch in December 2021

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The launch of the Imaging X-Ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) observatory is now targeting December 13, 2021 aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The IXPE X-Ray Observatory is the latest spacecraft in NASA’s historic Small Explorers (SMEX) program.

The IXPE mission was first selected as part of the Explorers program in January 2017. NASA awarded the IXPE team $ 188 million for the spacecraft and the mission, including the cost of the launcher, operations post-launch and data analysis. The spacecraft will be used to study black holes and other cosmic X-ray mysteries.

Built by Ball Aerospace at a facility in Boulder, Colorado, the IXPE spacecraft is based on the Ball Configurable Platform (BCP) -100 satellite bus. The BCP-100 is one of Ball Aerospace’s offerings for a modular satellite bus for low Earth orbit (LEO) operations. It was recently used by NASA’s Green Propellant Infusion Mission (GPIM) to test a new type of green propellant for space operations.

The IXPE is not the only space observatory that Ball Aerospace has built. Ball built the Kepler Space Telescope, the Hubble and Spitzer Space Telescope instruments. Ball also designed the Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), now named Near-Earth Orbit (NEO) WISE, which is also part of the Explorers program.

Using the BCP-100 satellite bus, IXPE will weigh a total of approximately 325 kg. Once launched, the spacecraft will measure 1.1 meters in diameter and 5.2 meters high when fully deployed. The solar panel will measure 2.7 meters when fully deployed. IXPE will have a two-year main mission in orbit.

The IXPE spacecraft is separated into two different parts. The first is the main spacecraft with the solar panel, attitude control, and communication systems. The second part is secured with a deployable payload boom with its x-ray shield and mirror module support structure (MMSS) main deck.

Artist’s impression of the IXPE spacecraft. (Credit: NASA)

The MMSS will consist of three separate mirror telescopes, all with a focal length of four meters. The focal length will be reached by the extendable pole. The telescopes will focus the X-rays seen from space on a polarization-sensitive imaging detector developed in Italy. The telescopes will have a range of 2 to 8 keV, a field of view of 11 arc minutes and an angular resolution of ≤ 30 arc seconds. IXPE’s detectors will be two orders of magnitude more sensitive than those of the Orbiting Solar Observatory (OSO) -8 mission.

Using these three telescopes, IXPE will study the polarization of X-rays. X-ray polarization is a specific area of ​​X-ray astronomy that allows scientists to study the distribution of matter, the rotation of holes. black, etc. IXPE is the first of its kind to study polarized X-rays of extreme objects such as neutron stars, stellar and supermassive black holes.

IXPE completed its Critical Design Review (CDR) in July 2019. From there, the spacecraft was built and assembled. In September 2020, the mirror module assembly (MMA) was delivered to Ball Aerospace in Boulder. A month later, the MMA was installed on the MMSS bridge. In December 2020, the extendable boom arm underwent a deployment test.

By the end of January 2021, the spacecraft was finished and environmental testing began. In August 2021, IXPE performed a 21-day thermal vacuum test with its boom extended. At the end of August, the arm was put away and back in its clean room.

The next step for IXPE is the completion of all of its pre-launch tests. Soon it will be delivered from Ball’s facilities in Boulder to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida for its launch.

IXPE is currently set to launch on a SpaceX Falcon 9, possibly from the historic 39A Launch Complex. In 2019, NASA awarded SpaceX $ 50.3 million to launch IXPE. IXPE was originally designed to be launched on a Northrop Grumman Pegasus-XL launcher, but SpaceX ended up winning the contract to launch IXPE.

Launch of Falcon 9 (B1059-5) from LC-39A with mission NROL-108. (Credit: SpaceX)

Initially targeting May 2021, it has been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic at the end of 2021. The launch is currently scheduled for earlier (NET) December 13, 2021.

The Falcon 9 will launch IXPE into a 590 km circular orbit with an inclination of 0.2 degrees. Additionally, given the size and weight of IXPE, it can perform a Return to Launch Site (RTLS) landing in SpaceX’s Cape Canaveral Landing Zone 1. Once separated from the Falcon 9, it will extend its solar panel and payload boom to begin its mission.

Explorer program

IXPE is the latest in a very long list of Explorers program satellites. The Explorers program began in the 1950s as a US military program to launch the first man-made satellite into orbit. The first American satellite, Explorer-1, was launched via a Juno-1 rocket in January 1958, before the program was taken over by NASA when it was created in October 1958.

Over time, the program evolved into what it is today. The program is now separated into three different main classes and one minor class. There is a Middle Class Explorer (MIDEX), the SMEX (of which IXPE is a part), College Class Explorers (UNEX), and a Mission of Opportunity (MO).

List of active MIDEX / SEMX satellites Class type Launch vehicle Release date Operating time
Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE) Delta II 7920-8 25 Aug 1997 ~ 24 years, 1 month
Swift Observatory MIDEX-3 Delta II 7320-10C November 20, 2004 ~ 16 years, 9 months
Temporal history of events and interactions at the macroscopic scale during sub-storms (THEMIS) MIDEX-5 Delta II 7925-10C Feb 17 2007 ~ 14 years, 7 months
Aeronomy of ice in the mesosphere (AIM) SMEX-9 Pegasus-XL F38 April 25, 2007 ~ 14 years, 5 months
Interstellar Frontier Explorer (IBEX) SMEX-10 Pegasus XL F40 October 19, 2008 ~ 12 years, 11 months
SAGE / NEW MIDEX-6 Delta II 7320-10 Dec 14 2009 ~ 11 years, 9 months
NuSTAR SMEX-11 Pegasus XL F41 June 13, 2012 ~ 9 years, 3 months
Interface region imaging spectrograph (IRIS) SMEX-12 Pegasus-XL F42 June 28, 2013 ~ 8 years, 3 months
Satellite for the study of exoplanets in transit (TESS) MIDEX-7 Falcon 9 (B1045-1) April 18, 2018 ~ 3 years, 5 months
Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON) MIDEX-8 Pegasus XL F44 October 11, 2019 ~ 1 year, 11 months

Some of the active MO missions include the two Wide Angle Imaging Neutral Atom Astrometers (TWINS), which are a pair of instruments on missions USA-184 (NROL-22) and USA-200 (NROL-28). Another mission is the Neutron Star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) X-ray Telescope which was launched during the SpaceX CRS-11 mission to the International Space Station. The most recent mission to fly is the Global Member and Disk Observation (GOLD) mission currently aboard the Airbus-built SES-14 spacecraft.

The ACE spacecraft, which has been in service for about 24 years now, is one of the longest NASA missions ever. ACE is currently used to study particles and magnetic fields in space. Today, along with NOAA’s DSCOVR spacecraft, it is currently being used to observe space weather and be used as an early detection of solar activity. ACE will remain in service until 2024, when it will run out of fuel.

THEMIS is a mission made up of five spacecraft, three of which are in highly elliptical earth orbit and two in lunar orbit. The two in lunar orbit were renamed ARTEMIS P1 and P2. THEMIS and ARTEMIS both work in tangent with each other and with other spacecraft to help study the Sun and its effects on the Earth’s magnetosphere. Their mission will continue until all spaceships run out of fuel.

THEMIS in pre-launch tests. (Credit: NASA)

NEOWISE is currently in sun-synchronous orbit as part of a near-Earth object detection mission. In July 2021, its mission was extended until June 2023. A future spacecraft, NEO Surveyor, will replace NEOWISE when it is launched in 2026. It is currently in phase B of program development.

The Explorers program provides opportunities for the fields of heliophysical and astrophysical sciences. The program still has several other missions coming up for future missions. The next SMEX missions after IXPE are the Polarimeter to unify the corona and the heliosphere (PUNCH) and the Tandem Reconnection and Cusp Electrodynamics Reconnaissance Satellites (TRACERS) missions. The two will be launched together on an unaffected launcher in October 2023. Both are currently in Phase B and are under design and technological completion.

In 2024, several other Explorer missions will be launched, including the Spectrophotometer for the History of the Universe, Reionization Era and Ice Explorer (SPHEREx), as well as the Sun Radio Interferometer Space Experiment (SunRISE) mission. . SPHEREx is currently in phase C, which means it is now in final design and manufacture; it will be launched in September 2024 on a Falcon 9 from the Vandenberg Space Force base.

SunRISE has just entered Phase B of its development in September 2021. The six spacecraft will be launched aboard a Maxar-built satellite in geostationary orbit, currently scheduled between April 2024 and September 2025.

(Main image credit: NASA)


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