Enlarge / This artist's concept illustrates a supermassive black hole with millions to billions times the mass of our Sun. (credit: NASA)

Some of the most exotic and intriguing objects in the universe, such as neutron stars and black holes, are largely beyond the capability of scientists to study directly. But they can be studied by looking at details of the extremely energetic regions of space immediately around these objects. That's precisely what NASA intends to do with its latest astrophysical award.

On Tuesday afternoon, the space agency announced it would fund the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) mission, with three space telescopes capable of measuring the polarization of cosmic X-rays in the vicinity of objects such as magnetars, isolated pulsars, pulsar wind nebula and supernova remnants, microquasars, active galaxies, and more. The mission, slated for a launch in 2020, will be funded at $188 million for instrument development, launch, and data analysis. The Italian Space Agency will contribute highly sensitive X-ray detectors.

“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,” said Paul Hertz, astrophysics division director for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “IXPE will open a new window on the universe for astronomers to peer through. Today, we can only guess what we will find.”

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