On the left, an optical image from the Digitized Sky Survey shows Cygnus X-1, outlined in a red box. Cygnus X-1 is located near large active regions of star formation in the Milky Way, as seen in this image that spans some 700 light years across. An artist’s illustration on the right depicts what astronomers think is happening within the Cygnus X-1 system. Cygnus X-1 is a so-called stellar-mass black hole, a class of black holes that comes from the collapse of a massive star. New studies with data from Chandra and several other telescopes have determined the black hole’s spin, mass, and distance with unprecedented accuracy.

NASA plans to launch a USD 188 million science mission in 2020 that will allow astronomers to explore, for the first time, the hidden details of some of the most extreme and exotic astronomical objects, such as stellar and supermassive black holes, neutron stars and pulsars.

Objects such as black holes can heat surrounding gases to more than a million degrees. The high-energy X-ray radiation from this gas can be polarised – vibrating in a particular direction, NASA said.

The Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) mission will fly three space telescopes with cameras capable of measuring the polarisation of these cosmic X-rays, allowing scientists to answer fundamental questions about these turbulent and extreme environments where gravitational, electric and magnetic fields are at their limits, it said.

“We cannot directly image what is going on near objects like black holes and neutron stars, but studying the polarisation of X-rays emitted from their surrounding environments reveals the physics of these enigmatic objects,” said Paul Hertz, astrophysics division director for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA.

“NASA has a great history of launching observatories in the Astrophysics Explorers Programme with new and unique observational capabilities. IXPE will open a new window on the universe for astronomers to peer through. Today, we can only guess what we will find,” said Hertz.

NASAs Astrophysics Explorers Programme requested proposals for new missions in September 2014. Fourteen proposals were submitted, and three mission concepts were selected for additional review by a panel of agency and external scientists.

NASA determined the IXPE proposal provided the best science potential and most feasible development plan.

The mission, slated for launch in 2020, will cost USD 188 million. This figure includes the cost of the launch vehicle and post-launch operations and data analysis, NASA said.

Principal Investigator Martin Weisskopf of NASAs Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, will lead the mission. Ball Aerospace in Broomfield, Colorado, will provide the spacecraft and mission integration.

The Italian Space Agency will contribute the polarisation sensitive X-ray detectors, which were developed in Italy.

NASAs Explorers Programme provides frequent, low-cost access to space using principal investigator-led space science investigations relevant to the agencies astrophysics and heliophysics programmes.

The programme has launched more than 90 missions, including Explorer 1 in 1958, which discovered the Van Allen radiation belts around the Earth, and the Cosmic Background Explorer mission, which led to a Nobel Prize.

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