What can we observe in the sky in January 2023? In our solar system, several events will take place at the beginning of this new year.
First, on January 4, the Earth will pass at perihelion. In its elliptical trajectory around the Sun, this day will mark the minimum distance between our planet and its star.
The distance will be 147 098 925 km, which is about 5 million kilometers closer than the maximum distance between the two objects.
Also on January 4, the Quadrantid shower will reach its peak of activity : between 60 and 200 meteors per hour are expected to light up the night sky.
The radiant point, the place where the shooting stars seem to come from, is located in the constellation of the Cattleman in the direction of the Big Dipper. Its name comes from an ancient constellation, the Quadrans Muralis created in 1795 by the astronomer Jérôme Lalande. The name referred to a tool used by astronomers. The constellation was deleted in 1922 when the International Astronomer Union (IAU) formalized the names of the 88 constellations in our sky.
Discovered in spring 2022, the comet C/2022 E3 (ZTF) will animate this beginning of year. On January 12, it will pass at perihelion at about 1.1 times the distance from Earth to the Sun.
The name of the comet follows the official nomenclature for naming these objects. The “C” indicates that the comet is not periodic or that it takes more than 200 years to complete its orbit. “2022 E3” indicates that it is a comet discovered in 2022 in early March. “(ZTF)” is the reference to the research team that made the discovery, namely the Zwicky Transient Facility located at Mount Palomar in California.
After this date, the comet will be on its way to Earth: it should pass close to us on February 1st at only 0,28 astronomical unit, or about 100 times the distance to the Earth’s moon.
In the best case, the comet should be visible to the naked eye. Estimates of brightness should improve after its closest passage to the Sun.
In the deep sky, several objects depending on your position can be observed in ideal conditions during this month of January.
There is for example M47, an open cluster in the constellation of the Puppis, which will pass at most in the sky on January 15. You will be able to use the mosaic modeto capture on the same image M47 as well as M46 another open cluster and the planetary nebula NGC 2438.
Also at its highest point in the sky on January 15, the spiral galaxy NGC 2403 in the constellation Giraffe will also be in ideal conditions to be photographed with your instrument.
What can we observe in the sky in December? For this last month of the year, Mars will be in the sky several times, accompanied by beautiful showers of shooting stars!
The planet Mars will offer us several events in December
On December 1st, as it does every 780 days, the Red Planet will pass close to Earth. During this visit, Mars will be at 81 million kilometers from us this time around. As the trajectory of the planet is eccentric, it does not describe a circle but an ellipse, consequently the minimum distance between the two planets varies between 55 million and 120 million km.
The configuration of 2022 is therefore not the most optimal. It will be necessary to wait for the next transits in 2035 and 2050 for the planet to be as close as possible.
To witness the next record of proximity between the two planets, we will have to wait until August 28th, 2287. The distance will be only 55.758 million km, that is to say 70,000 km less than the previous record of 2003.
A few days later, on December 8th, the planet will be in opposition: the Sun-Earth-Mars system will be aligned.
On the same day, in some parts of the world, Mars will be playing hide-and-seek with the Full Moon. In Western Europe, Canada and a large part of the United States, the Red Planet will pass behind the last Full Moon of the year. During about 1 hour, between 2H17 UTC and 6H10 UTC, depending on your position, the planet will disappear behind our natural satellite.
Finally, Mars will be visible simultaneously with the other planets of the solar system at the end of the twilight.
For Uranus and Neptune, you will need an instrument to observe them.
The others will be visible with the naked eye.
Solstice December 21 21h48 UTC
December 21st, at 21:48 UTC, will mark the December solstice.
For the Northern Hemisphere, it will be the longest night of the year and the beginning of winter for temperate regions. For the Southern Hemisphere, it will be the shortest night of the year and the beginning of summer in temperate areas.
Showers of shooting stars
Geminid meteor shower
Between December 4 and 17, the Earth will pass through the dust and small rocky particles left by the asteroid Phaeton. These fragments will burn up in the atmosphere and offer a shower of shooting stars. The peak of activity is expected on December 14 with rates up to 120 shooting stars per hour depending on your location.
Ursids meteor Shower
After the Geminid shower, the Ursids will take over between December 17 and 26. The Earth will then pass through the dust deposited by the comet Tuttle. The maximum activity is expected on December 22. The number of shooting stars will be a few dozen per hour.
For those in the Southern Hemisphere, the Large Magellanic Cloud will be high in the sky and in good observing conditions. The new Mosaic mode will allow you to observe different regions of this galaxy, such as the Tarantula Nebula and the open clusters surrounding it. You can also explore another part of the LMC by observing the open cluster NGC 1761 and its environment also rich in clusters and nebulosities.
For those in the Northern Hemisphere, the Rosette Nebula will be in good observing conditions in December. It will reach its peak on December 30. Take advantage of the Mosaic mode to get an observation of the whole area.
What can we observe in the sky in November? The end of the year will be rich in observations of the sky and this month of November is already starting with a total lunar eclipse, visible on the west coast of the United States, Australia and East Asia, in particular.
Ceres passes through the Leo triplet between November 6th & 7th
Between November 6th & 7th, the dwarf planet Ceres will pass through the Leo Triplet in the sky. This will obviously be a visual effect in our sky because the smallest dwarf planet in the solar system with a size of 950 km is only about 400 million kilometers away from us while the M65, M66 and Hamburger galaxies are 35 million light years away.
Total lunar Eclipse on November 8th
After the partial eclipse of the Sun on October 25th, the Sun, the Earth and the Moon will play together again to offer us a new event in the sky. This time, the alignment of the 3 objects will be different because the Earth will be in the middle of the trio. The Moon will be totally in the shadow of the Earth and will not perceive the light of the Sun during this total lunar eclipse. The phenomenon will be visible everywhere where it will be dark on November 8 between 09:10 and 12:49 UTC, mainly the Americas, Asia and Oceania.
Uranus in opposition on November 9th
The seventh planet of the solar system will be at opposition on November 9th. The ice giant planet will be located a few degrees from the full Moon. In eastern Asia and Alaska, the opposition of the planet will be accompanied by an occultation by the Moon the day before.
Leonid on November 18th
During the month of November, the Earth passes through the residues left by the comet Tempel-Tuttle. About 10 tons of debris weighing less than a gram for sizes smaller than10mm come to burn in our atmosphere.
On the night of November 18, this Leonids shooting star shower will reach its maximum activity. In the direction of the constellation Leo, about 15 meteors per hour should be visible.
Trivia : The comet officially referenced as 55P/Tempel-Tuttle, was discovered independently by astronomers Ernest Tempel on December 19, 1865 and Horace Parnell Tuttle on January 6, 1866. It has a period of 33 years. Its latest passage to the Sun was on February 28, 1998 and its next one is scheduled for May 20, 2031, according to its current trajectory.
M45, the Pleiades well placed in the sky
During the night of November 18, the 7 sisters of the Pleiades and their parents Atlas and Pleioné will reach their highest point in the night sky. The open cluster will be in optimal conditions to be observed. In the sky, following the imaginary line formed by the stars Sirius, Orion’s belt and Aldebaran, you will discover a small group of 5 bright stars. After some time of adaptation, your eye should distinguish a little more and in excellent conditions of observation and with a good view, you should distinguish 12 of them. Using your instrument and the beta version of Singularity’s Mosaic mode, you should be able to detect a few dozen stars among the thousand objects contained in the open cluster.
Discover CovalENS, the first “panorama mode” ever built into a telescope, allowing you to explore a much larger area of the sky than the original field of view of your instrument, and create your own panorama of the Universe. Vespera and Stellina now offer an innovative observing mode that allows you to automatically obtain views of the sky that are much wider than normally allowed by the characteristics of the instrument. With the same observing station, you now have a wider window on the Universe and more opportunities to capture unique images.
1 – What are the new possibilities offered by the capture of mosaics ?
Stellina and Vespera have a fixed field of view which is determined by the focal length of each instrument and the size of their sensors.
For Stellina, this field of view is 1° x 0.7° and for Vespera 1.6° x 0.9°.
Many deep sky objects as well as the Moon and the Sun (observable with the optional sun filter are smaller in size and then can be observed and photographed in their entirety. But there are also some objects or groups of objects that are larger in size and therefore can’t be seen in their entirety in the captured images. For example, the Great Andromeda Galaxy is about 3° at its longest dimension (6 times the full Moon!).
The mosaic mode extends the field of view of Stellina and Vespera, allowing you to see larger objects and regions of the universe. It is like having a second observation station for the large field.
The Andromeda galaxy captured with Vespera in mosaic mode (unprocessed image, integration time: 2 hours). The image represents a FOV of 2.8° x 2.1°. The white rectangle represents the native field of Vespera and the blue rectangle the native field of Stellina.
With the mosaic capture, you can now :
obtain more complete images of large deep sky objects such as the Andromeda Galaxy, the Rosette Nebula (Monoceros constellation), the Carina Nebula, the Heart Nebula (Cassiopeia constellation), the Small Magellanic Cloud, large star clusters such as the Pleiades…
better explore the environment of large nebulas, such as the Great Orion Nebula or the Horsehead Nebula, the region of the Tarantula Nebula or the nebula-rich regions of the Milky Way’s center
obtain, in the same view, sets of nebulas such as the Lagoon Nebula and the Trifid Nebula (Sagittarius constellation) but also views gathering several star clusters such as M46 and M47 (Puppis constellation)
capture small asterisms or groups of stars with a particular aesthetic, such as Kemble’s Cascade (Camelopardalis constellation)
it was already possible to visualise, in the same field, groups of galaxies such as M81 and M82, but now larger groups are available: the Leo cluster of galaxies or the Markarian Chain, Coma Cluster
Mosaic dimensions and specificities according to the observation station
The user can choose the dimensions and proportions of the mosaic in the Singularity interface (see part 3). The maximum field of view at the sensor proportions is 3.2° x 1.8° and for Stellina 2° x 1.4°.
Vespera users benefit from the possibility of capturing images with a higher resolution than the sensor resolution, up to 8.2 megapixels, thanks to the mosaic mode.
The maximum resolution of a mosaic made with Stellina is 6.4 megapixels.
The framing of a mosaic is defined in relation to the north/south orientation of the sky (equatorial orientation), so that Vespera users are not dependent on the orientation of celestial objects in the field of view, which varies according to the time of observation.
The innovative process developped by Vaonis to capture these wide field images (see part 2) allows you to benefit from a “dithering” effect (the same portion of the sky is captured successively by different areas of the sensor) which attenuates the impact of the inherent defects of the sensor (noise, hot pixels) and allows to obtain a final rendering of better quality.
Summary of mosaic characteristics
native field of view of the telescope
1° x 0,7°
1,6° x 0,9°
extended field max. size (sensor ratio)
2° x 1,4°
3,2° x 1,8°
extended field max. size (square)
1,7° x 1,7°
2,4° x 2,4°
extended field max. size (horizontal)
2,8° x 1
3,6° x 1,6°
extended field max. size (vertical)
0,7° x 4°
0,9° x 6,4°
extended field max. definition
2 – How does mosaic capture work?
Vaonis has developed an innovative method of image capture that allows users to obtain an image of the extended field in an optimum time, while simultaneously proceeding to the stacking of images, essential in astrophotography to obtain a satisfactory quality rendering.
The process of making a mosaic is completely automatic.
After launching the observation in mosaic mode, your observation station progressively scans the field that you have defined in the Singularity application by shifting the pointing of the telescope in small steps. Simultaneously, images are captured to compose the mosaic. As the images are captured, the large overlapping portions of the images are used to stack these areas.
The video below shows a time-lapse of the process, visible in the Singularity application.
An observation time of approximately 60 minutes (integration time displayed in your Singularity application) is required for your observation station to scan the entire extended field and provide a high-quality image of the mosaic.
If you decide to continue observing once the mosaic is complete, the extra time will be used to perform additional scans of the field and thus gradually improve the overall quality of the final image.
After 120 minutes of observation (the integration time displayed in your Singularity application), you will have an image of the entire field of significantly better quality, allowing you to manually process the image to bring out the finer details, for example.
Caption: The Andromeda Galaxy M31, captured by Vespera with an integration time of 2 hours and processed with Affinity Photo and Starnet applications ++ (image : Sébastien Aubry – @adventurerofthethirplanet )
The Rosette Nebula, captured by Vespera with an integration time of 2.5 hours and processed with the Affinity Photo and Starnet ++ applications. The frames superimposed on the image represent the native fields of Stellina (in blue) and Vespera (in white). (image : Sébastien Aubry – @adventurerofthethirplanet )
3 – How to use the panorama mode with your observation station
Singularity provides a simple and intuitive interface that allows you to select the region of the sky for a mosaic, taking into account the size and shape of the celestial objects you want to include.
As with all observations with Vespera and Stellina, the starting point for obtaining an extended field view is to search for your target in the Singularity app explorer page. In the beta mode, the mosaic mode works with manuel targets but is not compatible with the “Plan my Night” feature.
If your target is not listed in Singularity’s catalog, you can choose another nearby object available in the catalog and navigate to your target or define a manual target.
Once your target has been identified, Singularity will offer you the options of starting a classic observation or starting a mosaic.
If you choose the latter option, Singularity will show you a map of the sky centered on your target and representing the surrounding area.
The map displays all the deep sky objects, indicating their overall shape for large nebulas and their size and their orientation for galaxies and star clusters. The brightest stars are also displayed.
A white rectangle is superimposed on the map and delimits the field that will be captured by your observing station when you start the mosaic.
Pull the handles in the corners of this rectangle to change the size and proportions of the area. The top banner on the screen shows the dimensions of the field in degrees.
Drag the map to frame the targets you wish to include in the field.
Singularity’s interface for defining the size and framing of your mosaic: (1) Pull the handles of the frame to change its size and proportions. (2) Move the map to refine your composition.
When you are happy with your framing, launch the observation and your telescope will begin capturing the mosaic and show you its progress in real time as it acquires the individual images.
It takes about 60 minutes for the observing station to complete a mosaic. However, you can stop the process at any time if you are satisfied with the current image. You can then save it or export it as is.
Please note, however, that it is not possible to resume a mosaic that you have interrupted. You will have to start the acquisition from the beginning. Similarly, if during the course of a mosaic you ask to refocus, the capture will be interrupted and will be restarted (automatically) from the beginning.
Examples of defining the mosaic framework in Singularity for different regions of the sky: (1) Lagoon Nebula and Trifid (2) Markarian Chain
Saving and exporting mosaic images
You can save and export an image of the mosaic at any time, as you normally would with a conventional observation. The result of the mosaic can be obtained in JPEG format or in raw TIFF format if you wish to perform manual image processing.
If you have activated the saving of the files on a USB stick on Stellina or in the internal memory of Vespera, you will find all the JPEGs of each step of the mosaic as well as the raw file in TIFF format of the last state before the interruption of the observation. You can also save all the raw unit images in FITS format that were used to stack and to compose the mosaic. Please note, however, that in order to use the raw FITS images, you will have to manually perform the mosaic assembly and stacking with a specialized application.
The raw image file in TIFF format represents the assembled mosaic (with the stacking done by the observation station) and can be directly exploited in any image processing software.
The region of the Great Orion Nebula, captured by Vespera with an integration time of 2h30 and processed with Affinity Photo and Starnet applications ++ (image : Sébastien Aubry – @adventurerofthethirplanet )
When fitted with their optional solar filters, which transmit only 1/100,000 of the solar radiation, Vespera and Stellina can be used to observe some of the phenomena on the Sun’s surface without risk to the instrument or your eyes since the image is transmitted by the instrument’s built-in sensor. The Sun’s activity is currently increasing, which means now is a good time to start this new type of observation and enhance your experience with Vaonis observation stations even in daylight.
The Vespera solar filter is easily fitted to the front of the observation station’s lens and is automatically recognized by the Singularity app so you can start your solar observation with complete peace of mind.
The Sun comprises several layers. Although it has no solid surface, one of the outer layers – called the photosphere – is the source of more than 99% of solar radiation. In practice, the photosphere is what is referred to as the Sun’s surface, and it is this layer that you can observe with Vespera and Stellina fitted with the solar filter.
The photosphere is about 400 kilometers thick and has a temperature of about 5500°C.
The structure of the Sun. Vespera, fitted with the solar filter, allows users to observe the photosphere – Illustration: Sébastien Aubry.
The part around the photosphere is the solar atmosphere. Its lower part is called the chromosphere and is only observable with special instruments able to filter the part of the light spectrum corresponding to H-alpha emission. We can also see fragments of it (solar prominences) during a total solar eclipse (pink spots on the edge of the disk).
Finally, the upper part of the solar atmosphere is called the corona and can be observed either with a specific instrument called a coronagraph, or with the naked eye during a total solar eclipse.
2. What can you see on the Sun’s surface when using Vespera and Stellina fitted with the solar filter?
The photosphere has a relatively uniform appearance without permanent formations, unlike those that can be found on the planets or the moon. However, isolated or groups of dark spots appear regularly. These are known as sunspots, which can be clearly seen with the observation stations. However, sometimes the Sun’s surface does not have any spots (see below for more explanations).
Image of the Sun showing sunspots captured with Vespera fitted with the solar filter.
The lifespan of a sunspot varies from a few days to several weeks. They follow the rotation of the Sun but also have their own movements across the surface. The aspect of the solar disk changes every day.
By carefully observing the biggest spots and groups of spots, you will notice that the very dark center of the spots (the umbra), is often surrounded by a halo that is not quite as dark (the penumbra).
Sunspots are cooler regions with a temperature of about 3500°C. They are the result of loops of particularly intense magnetic fields which “break” the photosphere and limit the renewal of matter coming from the underlying layers of the star.
The smallest spots are a few thousand kilometers across while the largest ones reach 50,000 kilometers in diameter. They are so large they could hold Earth several times over.
On the edge of the solar disk, near isolated or groups of spots, you may be able to observe brighter areas. These are faculae. The contrast between them and the rest of solar disk is not as strong, so they are much more difficult to observe than sunspots. They are only visible along the periphery due to the apparent darkening of the edges of the solar disk. The faculae are hotter magnetic regions (about 8000°C). They can be grouped into a very large range of faculae. On the image below, obtained by computer processing of images captured by Vespera, faculae are visible around the edge of the disk.
Computer processing of images of the Sun captured with Vespera highlighting the photospheric faculae
3. Observing and measuring the Sun’s activity with Vespera and Stellina
The number of sunspots at any given time is extremely variable and depends on the intensity of the solar activity. Over more than a century of observation, astronomers have noticed that the number of spots varies regularly according to a cycle of about 11 years. At the beginning of each cycle, the Sun is nearly devoid of sunspots. The number gradually increases to reach a maximum before decreasing again. The solar activity cycle is intimately linked to the dynamics of the Sun’s magnetic field. Thus with each cycle, the magnetic field reverses.
With Vespera and Stellina, you can regularly count the sunspots and thus monitor changes in the Sun’s activity. We are currently in the early stages of Solar Cycle 25 (counting from when recording such cycles began). The number of spots is still low but will gradually increase. This is a good time to start monitoring the cycle to see how it evolves.
Changes in the number of sunspots. The pattern clearly shows a cycle of about 11 years.
Although we know how long the solar cycle is (even if it can vary by two or three years), it is much more difficult to predict the maximum intensity that each cycle will reach. Monitoring and comparing with previous cycles can provide clues.
The current cycle is expected to peak in the summer of 2025.
Method for measuring and monitoring the Sun’s activity.
If you begin a regular solar activity survey with Vespera or Stellina, it is important to use the same instrument the entire time. If you alternate between telescopes with different features, you will not see the sunspots with the same degree of accuracy, which will influence your count.
There is a fairly simple spot count method that provides a good indication of solar activity. It was developed in 1849 by Swiss astronomer Johann Rudolf Wolf and bears his name: the Wolf number. It is calculated using the following formula:
R = t + 10g
R is the relative sunspot, or Wolf, number, which represents the intensity of solar activity, s is the number of individual spots counted, and g is the number of groups of spots counted. An isolated spot is counted as a group.
This is because depending on the sharpness of the image obtained, it can be difficult to distinguish small spots that are very close to each other. Similarly, the notion of group may seem ambiguous. What is important is to follow the same rules for counting over time. The Wolf number therefore depends on your means and methods of observation.
By making regular observations, you can see how sunspots evolve and which ones are actually part of the same group, since those in a group move together.
For example, in the image below captured by Vespera on July 14, 2022, at least 40 spots and five groups can be counted.
R = 40 + (10 ? 5)
R = 90
The Wolf number is 90.
Counting the number of sunspots and groups of sunspots.
4. Observing and measuring the differential rotation of the Sun with Vespera and Stellina.
Sunspots are driven by the rotation of the Sun. Because they have a lifespan of several days, by capturing a new image of the Sun each day you can see their movement and measure the Sun’s rotation speed. The longest lasting sunspots can even be followed over several rotations.
The Sun does not have a solid surface and its rotation is not uniform. It is faster at the pole than at the equator. This is called a differential rotation. The sunspots closer to the poles thus cross the solar disk more quickly.
An interesting and amusing experiment consists in making an animation video of the Sun’s rotation and the changes in the spots using a set of images taken at regular intervals.
To do this, you will need to know the orientation of the axis of Sun’s rotation in relation to the image captured by Vespera or Stellina to align each image identically. This orientation depends on the date, time and place of your observation.
To determine this information, you might try using the “TiltingSun” software that can be downloaded at the following address: https://atoptics.co.uk/tiltsun.htm
To locate sunspot positions, measure the Sun’s rotation or make an animation video, you will need to know the orientation of the Sun in the image.
5. How to start observing the Sun with Vespera and Stellina
To observe the Sun, you must use the solar filter (buy it here). Make sure you have the latest version of Singularity. Launch the app, select your observation location, and go to the Space Center to choose the “Solar Mode” function. Then follow the on-screen instructions.
After fitting the solar filter on your observation station, choose “Solar Pointing” from the Space Center tab.
Because solar observation is done during the day, there is no visible star that the observation stations can use to perform astrometry (detection of a star field that Vespera and Stellina can use to calibrate their position in the sky) and initialize, as is possible at night. This is why you should point your observation station as precisely as you can towards the Sun.
This is very easy to do by observing the shadow of the telescope on the ground. Turn your Vespera or Stellina manually on its base. The telescope is correctly aligned when the Sun’s rays pass through the gap between the arm and the body of the telescope and cut the shadow in half. The telescope then takes over and performs a scan to accurately point to the Sun and track it.
Left: Vespera is not properly aligned – Right: Sunlight passes through the gap between the arm and the body of Vespera; the telescope is correctly aligned.
Once the Sun is correctly targeted, Vespera proposes an image of it showing the relative size based on the different planets along with the stars that would be visible around the Sun if we could block out the daylight.
To retrieve an image for the various experiments mentioned above, choose the “raw image” of the Sun.
Choose to observe the Sun as if you were on another planet in the solar system or choose the raw image to perform various experiments on sunspots and the Sun’s rotation.
Never observe the Sun directly through an optical instrument that is not equipped with a specific protective filter. Never point Vespera or Stellina towards the Sun if your observation station is not fitted with a Vaonis filter.
May sees a fine gathering of dawn planets, a trio of possible meteor outbursts and a spectacular total lunar eclipse.
Messier 3, one of the fine globular clusters of May. Credit: Stellina/Dave Dickinson
After a long dry spell, the astronomical action returns to the night sky in the month of May. Eclipse season is also underway in May, bookended by a spectacular total lunar eclipse on May 16th. Meanwhile, planets string the dawn sky, along with the chance for several rare meteor outbursts… looking farther afield, the May sky means one thing for deep sky observers: the promise of galaxies.Read more
April astronomy sees the bright stars of winter set at dusk, with the promise of galaxies rising in the east.
The month of April sees the first full month of Spring in the northern hemisphere, and Fall in the southern. Though nights are getting ever shorter up north, the length of daytime versus night is still fairly equal across both hemispheres.
Also, keep an eye out for aurora from mid- to high latitudes in April as we come off of equinox season; the Sun just kicked off as Earthward X1 class flare yesterday, and Solar Cycle #25 is now in full swing.Read more
NASA’s NICER Observatory aboard the International Space Station sees a unique astrophysical first.
NICER (the square-shaped array, in the center of the image) on the exterior of the ISS. Credit: NASA
A unique high-flying observatory aboard the International Space Station recently completed a one-of-a-kind discovery, of a bizarre astrophysical object.
On the night of October 10, 2020, NASA’s orbiting Neil Gehrels Swift observatory spotted an anomalous source: a fast-spinning magnetar, blinking in the x-ray spectrum once every 10.4 seconds. The Neil Gehrels Swift observatory is designed to track gamma-ray bursts, but it occasionally spies other curious sources as it scans the sky across the visible light/x-ray/gamma-ray spectrum.Read more
NASA’s latest x-ray observatory IXPE is open for business.
Cassiopeia A seen in IXPE data (magenta) overlayed on Chandra imagery (blue). Credit: NASA/MSFC/IXPE
James Webb isn’t the only new space observatory ready to perform cutting-edge science in 2022. NASA just released the first science image from its new Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE). Launched at the end of 2022, the mission will explore the Universe at X-ray wavelengths in polarized light.
The image above shows a view of the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A (Cas A) in the constellation of the same name. Located near Beta Cassiopeiae in the constellation of Cassiopeia the Queen, light from Cassiopeia A would have reached the Earth in the late 17th century, perhaps recorded as a +6th magnitude star by astronomer John Flamsteed in 1680. It’s thought that the shrouds of ejected layers might have obscured the true brilliance of the supernova from Earthly eyes. Today, we know that this was actually a supernova in our own galaxy at 11,000 light-years distant, and represents one of the last supernovae known of in the Milky Way.
“The IXPE image of Cassiopeia A is as historic as the Chandra image of the same supernova remnant,” says Martin C. Weisskopf (NASA/MSFC) in a recent press release. “It demonstrates IXPE’s potential to gain new, never-before-seen information about Cassiopeia A, which is under analysis right now.”
The aftermath of the supernova explosion sent shock-waves through the surrounding interstellar medium, apparent in the image. The IXPE image shows a data overlay in magenta, versus previous data gathered by NASA’s Chandra X-ray explorer in blue. The observatory looks at targets in polarized x-ray light, adding in an essential scientific dimension on how the light is traveling through space, giving clues as to the environment from which it originated. Understanding supernovae is crucial, as they forge heavier elements that are later incorporated in later generations of stars and planets.
IXPE will be able to make a first-ever x-ray polarization map across the apparent surface of the remnant Cassiopeia A nebula, allowing astronomers to characterize the dynamics and source of energy across the nebula. Astronomers are also utilizing machine learning data to make measurements gathered by the mission even more precise.
An X-ray map of Cas A, showing ‘hot-spots’ in the expanding nebula. Credit: IXPE/NASA
Launched on December 9th, 2021 from the Kennedy Space Center on a SpaceX Falcon-9 rocket, IXPE is the latest in a long line of space-based x-ray observatories, including Chandra, NuStar and the European Space Agency’s XMM Newton. The observatory is in an equatorial low-Earth orbit, 540 kilometers above the surface of the Earth.
An artist’s concept of IXPE in space. Credit: IXPE.
What’s Next for IXPE
IXPE is the result of a collaboration of NASA and the Italian Space Agency, which provided the unique polarization-sensitive detectors used in the optical system. IXPE has a 2-year nominal mission, though as is the case of many space observatories, scientists and engineers will work to get the most out of IXPE at the end of its planned carreer in a possible extended mission.
Astronomers also plan on using IXPE to study black holes, neutron stars, magnetars, along with distant quasars and active galactic nuclei. The spacecraft carries three identical telescopes on a 4-metre long boom, which was extended after launch. IXPE has an effective field of view of just over 11’, nearly half the size of a Full Moon.
It will be exciting to see what new science discoveries awaits IXPE in the years to come.
Cas A’s location in the sky. Credit: Stellarium.
You can actually see Cassiopeia A’s supernova remnant for yourself: Cassiopeia A is a small, but not impossible nebula to resolve with an amateur telescope… it appears as a wisp three arcminutes across, just under six degrees east of the +2.2 magnitude star Beta Cassiopeiae. Observers have managed to glimpse this nebula visually with a telescope aperture as small as 10”… and it should be within the grasp of Vaonis’ Stellina telescope!