A long boom extends from a cylindrical telescope floating above Earth. At the end of the spacecraft's boom are three converging circular mirrors, like petals on a flower.

A NASA space telescope mission is giving astronomers a whole new way to peer into the universe, allowing us to uncover long-standing mysteries surrounding objects such as black holes. Find out how it works and how to engage students in the science behind the mission.

Some of the wildest, most exciting features of our universe – from black holes to neutron stars – remain mysteries to us. What we do know is that because of their extreme environments, some of these emit highly energetic X-ray light, which we can detect despite the vast distances between us and the source.

Now, a NASA space telescope mission is using new techniques to not only scout out these distant phenomena, but also provide new information about their origins. Read on to learn how scientists are getting exciting new perspectives on our universe and what the future of X-ray astronomy holds.

How They Did It

In 2021, NASA launched the Imaging X-Ray Polarimeter Explorer, or IXPE, through a collaboration with Ball Aerospace and the Italian Space Agency. The space telescope is designed to operate for two years, detecting X-rays emitted from highly energetic objects in space, such as black holes, different types of neutron stars (e.g., pulsars and magnetars) and active galactic nuclei. In its first year, the telescope is focusing on roughly a dozen previously studied X-ray sources, spending hours or even days observing each target to reveal new data made possible by spacecraft's scientific instruments.

IXPE isn't the first telescope to observe the universe in X-ray light. NASA's Chandra X-ray Observatory, launched in 1999, has famously spent more than 20 years photographing our universe at a wavelength of light exclusively found in high-energy environments, such as where cosmic materials are heated to millions of degrees as a result of intense magnetic fields or extreme gravity.

Using Chandra, scientists can assign colors to the different energy levels, or wavelengths, produced by these environments. This allows us to get a picture of the highly energetic light ejected by black holes and tiny neutron stars – small, but extremely dense stars with masses 10-25 times that of our Sun. These beautiful images, such as from Chandra’s first target, Cassiopeia A (Cas A for short), show the violent beauty of stars exploding.

A blue halo of squiggly lines surrounds an explosion of colors extending out from the center of the supernova. Closest to the center is a circular splatter of orange surrounded by green and yellow and finally a hazy purple.

This image of the supernova Cassiopeia A from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory shows the location of different elements in the remains of the explosion: silicon (red), sulfur (yellow), calcium (green) and iron (purple). Each of these elements produces X-rays within narrow energy ranges, allowing maps of their location to be created. Image credit: NASA/CXC/SAO | › Full image and caption

While Chandra has earned its name as one of “The Great Observatories,” astronomers have long desired to peer further into highly energetic environments in space by capturing them in even more detail.

IXPE expands upon Chandra’s work with the introduction of a tool called a polarimeter, an instrument used to understand the shape and direction of the light that reaches the space telescope's detectors. The polarimeter on IXPE allows scientists to gain insight into the finer details of black holes, supernovas, and magnetars, like which direction they are spinning and their three-dimensional shape.

A blue halo of squiggly lines surrounds a fuzzy donut-shaped haze of magenta with splatters of blue and white throughout.

This image of Cassiopeia A was created using some of the first X-ray data collected by IXPE, shown in magenta, combined with high-energy X-ray data from Chandra, in blue. Image credit: NASA/CXC/SAO/IXPE | › Full image and caption

While scientists have just begun putting IXPE's capabilities to use, they're already starting to reveal new details about the inner workings of these objects – such as the magnetic field environment around Cas A, shown in a newly released image.

The supernova remnant is shown as a blob of blue with swirls of brighter blues and large splatters of white. Dashed lines on top of the image flow from the center outward. Dividing the supernova and lines into quarter sections of a circle, the top right section has lines that flow directly northeast. The section at the bottom right has lines that flow nearly southeast but curve northwards slightly The section at the bottom left has lines that flow straight up from the bottom edge of the supernova, curve around the center and then flow back down. And the section at the top left has lines that flow from the center directly west, others that curve around the center and flow diagonally northwest and others that flow from the center to the north. Small sections of the lines are highlighted in green at the 1 o'clock, 2 o'clock, 4 o'clock, 7 o'clock and 11 o'clock portions of the supernova.

The lines in this newly released image come from IXPE measurements that show the direction of the magnetic field across regions of Cassiopeia A. Green lines indicate regions where the measurements are most highly significant. These results indicate that the magnetic field lines near the outskirts of the supernova remnant are largely oriented radially, i.e., in a direction from the center of the remnant outwards. The IXPE observations also reveal that the magnetic field over small regions is highly tangled, without a dominant preferred direction. Observations such as this one can help scientists learn how particles shooting out from supernovae interact with the magnetic field created by the explosion. Image credits: X-ray: Chandra: NASA/CXC/SAO; IXPE: NASA/MSFC/J. Vink et al. | + Expand image | › Full image and caption

“For the first time, we will use every collected photon of light to tell us about the nature and shapes of objects in the sky that would be dots of light otherwise,” says Roger Romani, a Stanford professor and the co-investigator on IXPE.

How It Works

Generally, when light is produced, it is what we call unpolarized, meaning that it oscillates in every direction. For example, our Sun produces unpolarized light. But sometimes, light is produced in a highly organized fashion, oscillating only in one direction. In astronomy, this arises when magnetic fields force particles to incredibly high speeds, creating highly organized, or polarized, light.

This is what makes objects like the supernova Cas A such enticing targets for IXPE. Exploded stars like Cas A generate massive energetic waves when they go supernova, giving scientists a view of how particles shooting out at immense speeds interact with the magnetic fields from such an event. In the case of Cas A, IXPE was able to determine that the x-rays are not very polarized, meaning the explosion created very turbulent regions with multiple field directions.

While the idea of polarized or organized light may sound abstract, you may have noticed it the last time you were outside on a sunny day. If you’ve tried on a pair of polarized sunglasses, you may have noticed that the glare was greatly reduced. That’s because as light scatters, it bounces off of reflective surfaces in all directions. However, polarized lenses have tiny filters that only allow light coming from a narrow band of directions to pass through.

The polarimeter on IXPE works in a similar way. Astronomers can determine the strength of an object's magnetic field by using the polarimeter to measure how much of the light detected by the telescope is polarized. Typically, the more polarized the light the stronger the magnetic field at the source.

Astronomers can even go a step further to measure the direction this light is oscillating by measuring the angle of the light that reaches the telescope. Because the polarized light leaves the source in a predictable fashion – namely perpendicular from its magnetic field – knowing the angle of the oscillating light provides information about the axis of rotation and potentially even the surface structure of objects such as neutron stars and nebulae.

Side by side animations showing a rope moving from side to side through an open window and a rope moving up and down through an open window. As the window closes, fewer of the waves in the rope moving up and down make it through the window whereas the rope moving from side to side is undisturbed.

In this demonstration, the rope represents light waves and the open window represents a polarimeter. Depending on the angle of the light waves (rope), more or less information makes it through the polarimeter (window) the narrower it is. By measuring the amount of light received through the polarimeter, IXPE can determine the angle and the polarization of the light. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

Imagine, for example, that you were holding one end of a piece of rope secured to an object at the other end. If you swung the rope side to side to make horizontal waves, those waves would be able to make it through a narrow target like a window. If you started to shut the window from the top, narrowing the opening, the waves could conceivably still make it through the opening. However, if you made veritcal waves by waving the rope up and down, as the window closed, fewer and fewer waves would make it through the opening. Likewise, by measuring the light that makes it through the polarimeter to the detector on the other side, IXPE can determine the angle of the light received.

To collect this light, IXPE uses three identical mirrors at the end of a four meter (13 foot) boom. The light received by IXPE is carefully focused on the spacecraft’s polarimeter at the other end of the boom, allowing scientists to collect those crucial measurements.

During the IXPE launch broadcast, commentators discuss the components of the spacecraft and how it measures polarization. | Watch on YouTube

Why It's Important

Building on Chandra's observations from the past two decades, IXPE's novel approach to X-ray science is pulling the curtain back even farther on some of the most fascinating objects in the universe, providing first looks at how and where radiation is being produced in some of the most extreme environments in the universe. IXPE's measurements of Cas A are just the beginning, with even more mysterious targets ready to be explored.

Take it from Martin Weisskopf, the principal scientist on IXPE and project scientist for Chandra, who has spent his 50-year career working in X-ray astronomy, who says, “IXPE will open up the field in ways we’ve been stuck only theorizing about."

Teach It

Explore more on how NASA uses light to map our universe, and dig deeper into some of the celestial features it allows to study, such as blackholes and neutron stars.


Educator Resources

Explore More

NASA's Universe of Learning materials are based upon work supported by NASA under award number NNX16AC65A to the Space Telescope Science Institute, working in partnership with Caltech/IPAC, Center for Astrophysics | Harvard & Smithsonian, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

TAGS: Universe, Stars and Galaxies, Space Telescope, IXPE, Astronomy, Science, Electromagnetic Spectrum

  • Brandon Rodriguez

Illustration of spacecraft on a light purple background that reads "NASA Pi Day Challenge"

Update: March 16, 2020 – The answers to the 2020 NASA Pi Day Challenge are here! View the illustrated answer key (also available as a text-only doc).

In the News

Our annual opportunity to indulge in a shared love of space exploration, mathematics and sweet treats has come around again! Pi Day is the March 14 holiday that celebrates the mathematical constant pi – the number that results from dividing any circle's circumference by its diameter.

Infographic of all of the Pi in the Sky 7 graphics and problems

Visit the Pi in the Sky 7 lesson page to explore classroom resources and downloads for the 2019 NASA Pi Day Challenge. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | + Expand image

Overhead view of Mars with a comparison of the smaller landing ellipse made possible by Range Trigger technology

A new Mars landing technique called Range Trigger is reducing the size of the ellipse where spacecraft touch down. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | › Full image and caption

Composite image of the Kuiper Belt object Arrokoth from NASA's New Horizons spacecraft. Image credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Southwest Research Institute/Roman Tkachenko | › Full image and caption

Diagram of an airplane flying over a section of ocean with an example of the spectral data that CORAL collects

The CORAL mission records the spectra of light reflected from the ocean to study the composition and health of Earth's coral reefs. Image credit: NASA | + Expand image

Rays of bright orange and red shoot out diagonally from a blue circle surrounding the star Beta Pictoris

The star Beta Pictoris and its surrounding debris disk in near-infrared light. Image credit: ESO/A.-M. Lagrange et al. | › Full image and caption

Besides providing an excuse to eat all varieties of pie, Pi Day gives us a chance to appreciate some of the ways NASA uses pi to explore the solar system and beyond. You can do the math for yourself – or get students doing it – by taking part in the NASA Pi Day Challenge. Find out below how to test your pi skills with real-world problems faced by NASA space explorers, plus get lessons and resources for educators.

How It Works

The ratio of any circle's circumference to its diameter is equal to pi, which is often rounded to 3.14. But pi is what is known as an irrational number, so its decimal representation never ends, and it never repeats. Though it has been calculated to trillions of digits, we use far fewer at NASA.

Pi is useful for all sorts of things, like calculating the circumference and area of circular objects and the volume of cylinders. That's helpful information for everyone from farmers irrigating crops to tire manufacturers to soup-makers filling their cans. At NASA, we use pi to calculate the densities of planets, point space telescopes at distant stars and galaxies, steer rovers on the Red Planet, put spacecraft into orbit and so much more! With so many practical applications, it's no wonder so many people love pi!

In the U.S., 3.14 is also how we refer to March 14, which is why we celebrate the mathematical marvel that is pi on that date each year. In 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a resolution officially designating March 14 as Pi Day and encouraging teachers and students to celebrate the day with activities that teach students about pi.

The NASA Pi Day Challenge

This year's NASA Pi Day Challenge poses four puzzlers that require pi to compare the sizes of Mars landing areas, calculate the length of a year for one of the most distant objects in the solar system, measure the depth of the ocean from an airplane, and determine the diameter of a distant debris disk. Learn more about the science and engineering behind the problems below or click the link to jump right into the challenge.

› Take the NASA Pi Day Challenge
› Educators, get the lesson here!

Mars Maneuver

Long before a Mars rover touches down on the Red Planet, scientists and engineers must determine where to land. Rather than choosing a specific landing spot, NASA selects an area known as a landing ellipse. A Mars rover could land anywhere within this ellipse. Choosing where the landing ellipse is located requires compromising between getting as close as possible to interesting science targets and avoiding hazards like steep slopes and large boulders, which could quickly bring a mission to its end. In the Mars Maneuver problem, students use pi to see how new technologies have reduced the size of landing ellipses from one Mars rover mission to the next.

Cold Case

In January 2019, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft sped past Arrokoth, a frigid, primitive object that orbits within the Kuiper Belt, a doughnut-shaped ring of icy bodies beyond the orbit of Neptune. Arrokoth is the most distant Kuiper Belt object to be visited by a spacecraft and only the second object in the region to have been explored up close. To get New Horizons to Arrokoth, mission navigators needed to know the orbital properties of the object, such as its speed, distance from the Sun, and the tilt and shape of its orbit. This information is also important for scientists studying the object. In the Cold Case problem, students can use pi to determine how long it takes the distant object to make one trip around the Sun.

Coral Calculus

Coral reefs provide food and shelter to many ocean species and protect coastal communities against extreme weather events. Ocean warming, invasive species, pollutants, and acidification caused by climate change can harm the tiny living coral organisms responsible for building coral reefs. To better understand the health of Earth's coral reefs, NASA's COral Reef Airborne Laboratory, or CORAL, mission maps them from the air using spectroscopy, studying how light interacts with the reefs. To make accurate maps, CORAL must be able to differentiate among coral, algae and sand on the ocean floor from an airplane. And to do that, it needs to calculate the depth of the ocean at every point it maps by measuring how much sunlight passes through the ocean and is reflected upward from the ocean floor. In Coral Calculus, students use pi to measure the water depth of an area mapped by the CORAL mission and help scientists better understand the status of Earth's coral reefs.

Planet Pinpointer

Our galaxy contains billions of stars, many of which are likely home to exoplanets – planets outside our solar system. So how do scientists decide where to look for these worlds? Using data gathered by NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope, researchers found that they're more likely to find giant exoplanets around young stars surrounded by debris disks, which are made up of material similar to what's found in the asteroid belt and Kuiper Belt in our solar system. Sure enough, after discovering a debris disk around the star Beta Pictoris, researchers later confirmed that it is home to at least two giant exoplanets. Learning more about Beta Pictoris' debris disk could give scientists insight into the formation of these giant worlds. In Planet Pinpointer, put yourself in the role of a NASA scientist to learn more about Beta Pictoris' debris disk, using pi to calculate the distance across it.


Join the conversation and share your Pi Day Challenge answers with @NASAJPL_Edu on social media using the hashtag #NASAPiDayChallenge

Blogs and Features

Related Lessons for Educators

Related Activities for Students

NOAA Video Series: Coral Comeback


Facts and Figures

Missions and Instruments


TAGS: K-12 Education, Math, Pi Day, Pi, NASA Pi Day Challenge, Events, Space, Educators, Teachers, Parents, Students, STEM, Lessons, Problem Set, Mars 2020, Perseverance, Curiosity, Mars rovers, Mars landing, MU69, Arrokoth, New Horizons, Earth science, Climate change, CORAL, NASA Expeditions, coral reefs, oceans, Spitzer, exoplanets, Beta Pictoris, stars, universe, space telescope, Climate TM

  • Lyle Tavernier

In the News

On Jan. 30, 2020, the venerable Spitzer Space Telescope mission will officially come to an end as NASA makes way for a next-generation observatory. For more than 16 years, Spitzer has served as one of NASA’s four Great Observatories, surveying the sky in infrared. During its lifetime, Spitzer detected planets and signs of habitability beyond our solar system, returned stunning images of regions where stars are born, spied light from distant galaxies formed when the universe was young, and discovered a huge, previously-unseen ring around Saturn. Read on to learn more about this amazing mission and gather tools to teach your students that there truly is more than meets the eye in the infrared universe!

How It Worked

Human eyes can see only the portion of the electromagnetic spectrum known as visible light. This is because the human retina can detect only certain wavelengths of light through special photoreceptors called rods and cones. Everything we see with our eyes either emits or reflects visible light. But visible light is just a small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. To "see" things that emit or reflect other wavelengths of light, we must rely on technology designed to sense those portions of the electromagnetic spectrum. Using this specialized technology allows us to peer into space and observe objects and processes we wouldn’t otherwise be able to see.

Infographic showing the electromagnetic spectrum and applications for various wavelengths.

This diagram shows wavelengths of light on the electromagnetic spectrum and how they're used for various applications. Image credit: NASA | + Expand image

Infrared is one of the wavelengths of light that cannot be seen by human eyes. (It can sometimes be felt by our skin as heat if we are close enough to a strong source.) All objects that have temperature emit many wavelengths of light. The warmer they are, the more light they emit. Most things in the universe are warm enough to emit infrared radiation, and that light can be seen by an infrared-detecting telescope. Because Earth’s atmosphere absorbs most infrared radiation, infrared observations of space are best conducted from outside the planet's atmosphere.

Learn more about the infrared portion of the electromagnetic spectrum and how NASA uses it to explore space. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | Watch on YouTube

So, to get a look at space objects that were otherwise hidden from view, NASA launched the Spitzer Space Telescope in 2003. Cooled by liquid helium and capable of viewing the sky in infrared, Spitzer launched into an Earth-trailing orbit around the Sun, where it became part of the agency's Great Observatory program along with the visible-light and near-infrared-detecting Hubble Space Telescope, Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory and Chandra X-ray Observatory. (Keeping the telescope cold reduces the chances of heat, or infrared light, from the spacecraft interfering with its astronomical observations.)

Over its lifetime, Spitzer has been used to detect light from objects and regions in space where the human eye and optical, or visible-light-sensing, telescopes may see nothing.

Why It's Important

NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope has returned volumes of data, yielding numerous scientific discoveries.

Vast, dense clouds of dust and gas block our view of many regions of the universe. Infrared light can penetrate these clouds, enabling Spitzer to peer into otherwise hidden regions of star formation, newly forming planetary systems and the centers of galaxies.

A whisp of orange and green dust bows out beside a large blue star among a field of smaller blue stars.

The bow shock, or shock wave, in front of the giant star Zeta Ophiuchi shown in this image from Spitzer is visible only in infrared light. The bow shock is created by winds that flow from the star, making ripples in the surrounding dust. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | › Full image and caption

Infrared astronomy also reveals information about cooler objects in space, such as smaller stars too dim to be detected by their visible light, planets beyond our solar system (called exoplanets) and giant molecular clouds where new stars are born. Additionally, many molecules in space, including organic molecules thought to be key to life's formation, have unique spectral signatures in the infrared. Spitzer has been able to detect those molecules when other instruments have not.

Bursts of reds, oranges, greens, blues and violets spread out in all directions from a bright center source. Reds and oranges dominate the left side of the image.

Both NASA's Spitzer and Hubble space telescopes contributed to this vibrant image of the Orion nebula. Spitzer's infrared view exposed carbon-rich molecules, shown in this image as wisps of red and orange. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/T. Megeath (University of Toledo) & M. Robberto (STScI) | › Full image and caption

Stars are born from condensing clouds of dust and gas. These newly formed stars are optically visible only once they have blown away the cocoon of dust and gas in which they were born. But Spitzer has been able to see infant stars as they form within their gas and dust clouds, helping us learn more about the life cycles of stars and the formation of solar systems.

A blanket of green- and orange-colored stellar dust surrounds a grouping of purple, blue and red stars.

Newborn stars peek out from beneath their natal blanket of dust in this dynamic image of the Rho Ophiuchi dark cloud from Spitzer. The colors in this image reflect the relative temperatures and evolutionary states of the various stars. The youngest stars are shown as red while more evolved stars are shown as blue. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Harvard-Smithsonian CfA | › Full image and caption

Infrared emissions from most galaxies come primarily from stars as well as interstellar gas and dust. With Spitzer, astronomers have been able to see which galaxies are furiously forming stars, locate the regions within them where stars are born and pinpoint the cause of the stellar baby boom. Spitzer has given astronomers valuable insights into the structure of our own Milky Way galaxy by revealing where all the new stars are forming.

A bright band of crimson-colored dust stretches across the center of this image covered in tiny specs of light from hundreds of thousands of stars.

This Spitzer image, which covers a horizontal span of 890 light-years, shows hundreds of thousands of stars crowded into the swirling core of our spiral Milky Way galaxy. In visible-light pictures, this region cannot be seen at all because dust lying between Earth and the galactic center blocks our view. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | › Full image and caption

Spitzer marked a new age in the study of planets outside our solar system by being the first telescope to directly detect light emitted by these so-called exoplanets. This has made it possible for us to directly study and compare these exoplanets. Using Spitzer, astronomers have been able to measure temperatures, winds and the atmospheric composition of exoplanets – and to better understand their potential habitability. The discoveries have even inspired artists at NASA to envision what it might be like to visit these planets.

Collage of exoplanet posters from NASA

Thanks to Spitzer, scientists are learning more and more about planets beyond our solar system. These discoveries have even inspired a series of posters created by artists at NASA, who imagined what future explorers might encounter on these faraway worlds. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech | › Download posters

Data collected by Spitzer will continue to be analyzed for decades to come and is sure to yield even more scientific findings. It's certainly not the end of NASA's quest to get an infrared window into our stellar surroundings. In the coming years, the agency plans to launch its James Webb Space Telescope, with a mirror more than seven times the diameter of Spitzer's, to see the universe in even more detail. And NASA's Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, or WFIRST, will continue infrared observations in space with improved technology. Stay tuned for even more exciting infrared imagery, discoveries and learning!

Teach It

Use these lessons, videos and online interactive features to teach students how we use various wavelengths of light, including infrared, to learn about our universe:

Explore More

Also, check out these related resources for kids from NASA’s Space Place:

TAGS: Teachable Moments, science, astronomy, K-12 education, teachers, educators, parents, STEM, lessons, activities, Spitzer, Space Telescope, Missions, Spacecraft, Stars, Galaxies, Universe, Infrared, Wavelengths, Spectrum, Light

  • Ota Lutz