SpaceX has successfully launched NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer telescope, which will study black holes and a range of dead stars. The launch of the NASA telescope marks the first launch on the fifth flight of a reused SpaceX rocket, the Falcon 9 booster B1061. The rocket took flight at 1 am EST.
Eight minutes after the successful liftoff, SpaceX’s carrier rocket finished the first of two planned burns after entering a low parking orbit. After thirty seconds, the rocket nailed its fifth drone ship landing. After spending almost 20 minutes in orbit, Falcon 9 was ignited yet again to finally place the IXPE in its designated orbit.
This particular maneuver is extremely expensive owing to the large gravitational well, which requires a large amount of launch vehicle performance. The main reason behind this is that the nominal orbit of NASA’s IXPE is almost equatorial, whereas the launch site, Cape Canaveral, is about 28.5 degrees north.
Both the Falcon 9 and Orbital ATK’s Pegasus XL rocket were locked in a bidding war over NASA’s IXPE, only for SpaceX to offer an almost USD 50 million cheaper price to launch the telescope. However, as one source pointed out, “while Falcon 9 is designed to launch almost 23 tons into orbit in an expendable configuration and more than 16 tons with booster and fairing recovery, it’s only capable of launching about 1-2 tons to IXPE’s desired combination of an equatorial inclination and a ~600 km (~370 mi) orbit.”
Thanks to Falcon 9, the IXPE was launched directly into its operational orbit. It will only cost the scientists at NASA a few days to refine the position of the telescope in orbit. After all the initial work is done, the telescope will spend about two years in that orbit. It will observe at least 50 objects and phenomena in the universe to analyze the polarization of x-rays. Scientists are hoping that this will enable the telescope to test some of the most extreme environments in the universe.