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An artist’s conception shows the accretion disk around an active black hole. (NASA Illustration)

NASA is committing $188 million to build and launch a space telescope to observe patterns in the X-ray radiation emanating from black holes, neutron stars and pulsars.

The Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer, or IXPE, was chosen from a field of three finalists in NASA’s Astrophysics Explorers Program, the space agency said today.

IXPE’s triple-telescope detector system is designed to check the polarization of cosmic X-rays. Paul Hertz, astrophysics division director for NASA Headquarters’ Science Mission Directorate, said the mission should “open a new window on the universe for astronomers to peer through.”

“We cannot directly image what’s going on near objects like black holes and neutron stars, but studying the polarization of X-rays emitted from their surrounding environments reveals the physics of these enigmatic objects,” Hertz said in a news release.

IXPE is due for launch in 2020.

The IXPE probe takes advantage of three Italian-made X-ray detectors. (NASA Illustration)

The $188 million price tag includes the cost of the launch vehicle as well as mission operations and data analysis.  Principal investigator Martin Weisskopf of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center will lead the mission. Ball Aerospace will provide the spacecraft and mission integration. The Italian Space Agency will contribute the X-ray detectors.

Orbital ATK’s Pegasus air-launched rocket is seen as the leading option for sending IXPE into low Earth orbit. There’s a chance such a launch could involve Vulcan Aerospace’s Stratolaunch system, which is expected to go into operation by 2020 with backing from Seattle billionaire Paul Allen.

By selecting IXPE, NASA passed up the two other Explorer-class finalists: PRAXyS, which would have used a different set of instruments to study polarized X-rays; and SPHEREx, which would have conducted an all-sky infrared survey to look for the signature of cosmic inflation.

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