NASA has a new plan to observe black holes with cosmic X-rays

The agency will launch three new space telescopes in 2020.

Getty Images/Science Photo Library RF

Since humanity hasn't quite figured out a way to directly take a picture of black hole yet, NASA's next major science mission will send a trio of highly specialized telescopes into space to study the high-energy X-ray radiation surrounding black holes, neutron stars and pulsars. According to NASA's announcement today, the ultimate goal of the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) mission is to learn more about the gravitational, electric and magnetic fields at the edges of these cosmic phenomena.

The IXPE works as its name suggests: superheated gases around black holes become polarized and vibrate in a particular direction, so the IXPE gets a look at the invisible by measuring the polarization of those X-rays.

"We cannot directly image what's going on near objects like black holes and neutron stars," Paul Hertz, a director with NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington said, "but studying the polarization of X-rays emitted from their surrounding environments reveals the physics of these enigmatic objects."

The IXPE mission will launch in 2020, and NASA expects it to cost $188 million including the cost of the launch vehicle, which is being provided by Colorado-based Ball Aerospace. The Italian Space Agency also contributed the Italian-made polarization sensitive X-ray detectors. The mission itself came from NASA's Astrophysics Explorer's Program, which accepts outside proposals for new missions and has led to breakthroughs in the study of everything from Earth's atmosphere to cosmic background radiation.