A balloon telescope lifts off to study black holes and neutron stars

An international team of researchers gathered at the Esrange Space Center in Kiruna, Sweden on Tuesday (July 12) to witness the launch of XL-Calibur, a balloon-borne telescope that will measure X-ray emissions in our galaxy.

The current XL-Calibur mission will land in northern Canada on an unspecified date after cruising over the North Atlantic Ocean. The mission will collect data on several targets: the stellar-mass black hole Cygnus X-1, the Crab Nebula and the Crab Pulsar, and two flared X-ray sources in the Milky Way. NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia announced the launch on his official Twitter account on Monday, July 11.

XL-Calibur is a collaboration between nearly 50 scientists in the United States, Japan and Sweden and is overseen by lead researcher Henric Krawczynski of Washington University in St. Louis. The project aims to collect data on how magnetic fields and scattering can lead to the polarization of X-rays, which in turn can offer astronomers a better understanding of black holes and neutron stars, two sources of X-rays.

Related: The first image from NASA’s new IXPE X-ray telescope looks like a purple ball of lightning

NASA Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility technicians perform a compatibility test September 6, 2021 on the 25-foot XL-Calibur payload (Image credit: NASA/Jeremy Eggers)

Specifically, XL-Calibur is designed to study the polarization of X-rays in order “to improve our constraints on the properties of black holes and neutron stars, to better understand the physics of accretion on black holes and stars to neutrons, as well as to test the predictions of strong -field CQFD [quantum electrodynamics] and gravity in a strong field”, according to the project official site (opens in a new tab). A detailed description of how the X-ray polarization sensors on board XL-Calibur can achieve these goals has been published on the arXiv pre-publication server (opens in a new tab) in 2019.

XL-Calibur consists of a large trellis containing solar panels, a motorized pointing system and its various scientific instruments. Its X-ray mirror sits at one end and a polarimeter at the other, guarded by a sophisticated shield to block unwanted background radiation. The entire farm with its instruments is suspended beneath a massive balloon that measures hundreds of feet in diameter when it fully inflates upon reaching the stratosphere, rising to heights of up to 130,000 feet ( 39,600 meters).

Amateur photographers have already spotted (opens in a new tab) the huge balloon aloft as it floats west over Sweden and Norway toward Canada.

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XL-Calibur builds on the success of the previous Mission X Calibur (opens in a new tab)launched in 2018 from McMurdo Station in Antarctica with a similar mission to study X-ray polarization. This latest mission includes a much larger mirror than the previous mission that allows more sensitive X-ray measurements to be taken, and a new shield to block atmospheric gamma rays and cosmic rays.

You can follow XL-Calibur’s route live on Google Earth here (opens in a new tab).

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