CU Boulder to lead operations for NASA black holes mission

Published: Jan. 11, 2017
nasa satellite black holes

University of Colorado Boulder students and professionals will operate an upcoming NASA mission that will investigate the mysterious aspects of some of the most extreme and exotic astronomical objects like stellar and supermassive black holes, neutron stars and pulsars.

Objects such as black holes can heat surrounding gases to more than a million degrees, causing high-energy emissions in the X-ray portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. The high-energy X-ray radiation from this gas can be polarized, which causes it to vibrate in a particular direction.

The NASA Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) mission will fly three space telescopes with cameras capable of measuring the polarization of cosmic X-rays, allowing astronomers to answer fundamental questions about such turbulent environments.

The mission, slated for launch in 2020, is led by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Students and professionals from CU Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) will perform mission operations through a contract with Ball Aerospace Technologies Corp. of Boulder, which is providing the spacecraft and mission integration.

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

Students and professionals will operate the IXPE spacecraft from the LASP Space Technology Building on CU Boulder’s east campus, said Bill Possel, director of LASP’s Mission Operations and Data Systems division. The arrangement is similar to one in place between CU Boulder and Ball Aerospace in which LASP operates NASA’s wildly successful planet-hunting Kepler space telescope.

“We’re very excited to be part of this new mission,” Possel said. “Ball Aerospace is a fantastic partner and we have a long history of working mission operations for their NASA missions. Our students will play a major role in developing the operations procedures and eventually performing operations once the spacecraft is in orbit.”

LASP hires 10 to 15 undergraduates annually to train as satellite operators at the conclusion of their sophomore year. The students go through an intensive 10-week summer training program followed by practical and written tests leading to certification as satellite controllers by LASP.

Starting in the fall, the students will work 20 hours per week, including nights, holidays and during CU Boulder's winter and spring breaks. LASP currently provides operations for four NASA spacecraft (AIM, Kepler, QuikScat, and SORCE) and one CubeSat mission (MinXSS).