LASP students, staff are ready to operate NASA’s new IXPE mission to study black holes

Artist’s representation of NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) in Earth’s orbit. Credit: NASA

Years of preparation—including thousands of hours of training and all-night rehearsals—will culminate this week when students and professionals from the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) at the University of Colorado Boulder assume control of NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) mission just after it lifts off from Cape Canaveral, Florida. Following the launch, currently slated for 11:00 pm MST on Wednesday, December 8, LASP personnel will begin operating the nearly $200 million mission from the LASP Space Technology Building, located on the university’s east campus. 

After IXPE lifts off on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, the mission controllers will breathlessly await their first contact with it. This is expected to occur about 33 minutes later, at the Italian Space Agency-operated Malindi ground station in Kenya. Once safely in orbit, the spacecraft, built in Boulder by Ball Aerospace Technologies Corporation, will begin a month-long commissioning process, during which CU undergraduate students will be actively controlling it.

“LASP is one of only a few university-based mission operation centers in the world,” says Jerry Jason, director of LASP’s Mission Operations and Data Systems Division. “It’s a phenomenal opportunity for students, who must complete an intensive, 10-week training program and pass written and practical exams to become certified command controllers.” According to Jason, 23 students and 10 professional controllers have undergone the training and development necessary to operate IXPE. Many additional staff members have also contributed to the effort but won’t be actively commanding the spacecraft.

Mission Operations Center at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics in Boulder CO. Credit: Glenn Asakawa/CU

Following about a week of tests to ensure that IXPE is healthy and functioning correctly, LASP operators will command the spacecraft to unfurl its 3.7-meter-long boom—a crucial step in the mission’s success. “Those will be our next-most critical minutes after launch,” says IXPE Flight Director Darren Osborne. “Everyone in LASP’s Missions Operations Center, and our partners around the world, will be anxiously waiting for confirmation that it has deployed.”

Following the boom deployment, mission operators will fine-tune the focal lengths of IXPE’s three identical telescopes, which will observe a special type of X-rays emanating from some of the most extreme astronomical objects in existence, including stellar and supermassive black holes, neutron stars, and pulsars, so that scientists can better understand their origins and fundamental physics. IXPE is an international collaboration between NASA and the Italian Space Agency, which contributed the mission’s ultra-sensitive X-ray detectors. IXPE is led by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, which also developed the telescope mirrors.

IXPE mission logo. Credit: NASA

The mission operators at LASP have been prepping for Wednesday for months, including participating in overnight practice sessions intended to mimic the challenges they’ll face during the live event. LASP controllers will work 24/7 for the first two weeks, then transition to a normal work schedule while remaining on call 24/7 throughout the primary mission, which is slated to last two years. Collection of scientific data is expected to begin about a month after launch, once all of the instrumentation has been successfully calibrated.

LASP will perform mission operations through a contract with Ball Aerospace, an arrangement similar to the one they made for the planet-hunting Kepler space telescope. IXPE will be the ninth observatory that LASP has operated for NASA. LASP also operates numerous instruments on other missions, as well as CubeSats. Each one continues to expand LASP’s mission operations capabilities.

The Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) is at the forefront of solar and planetary research, climate and space-weather monitoring, and the search for evidence of habitable worlds. Our instruments and spacecraft, built in our state-of-the-art facilities at the University of Colorado Boulder, have visited every planet and Pluto and led to profound scientific discoveries. Every day, undergraduate and graduate students work alongside our scientists, mission operators, data analysts, and engineers, as well as our many government, academic, and industry partners, to push the limits of space science and exploration.