Home Science & Technology Pathfinder EP-WXT takes first wide-field pictures of X-ray universe – Scientific Inquirer

Pathfinder EP-WXT takes first wide-field pictures of X-ray universe – Scientific Inquirer

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EP-WXT Pathfinder, an experimental version of the module that will eventually become part of the Wide X-ray Telescope (WXT) aboard the Einstein Probe (EP) astronomy satellite, released its first results on August 27 from a preliminary test flight. This includes an 800-second X-ray time-lapse picture of the Galactic Center region, the dense region at the center of our home galaxy, the Milky Way.

These are the first wide-field X-ray pictures of our universe available so far, taken by the first truly wide-field X-ray focusing imaging telescope ever to fly into space.

The results were reported by scientists from the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) at the Second Chinese Space Science Assembly held in Taiyuan, China.


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Since the first detection of X-ray signals from the depths of the Universe 60 years ago, there has not been a large focusing X-ray telescope for X-ray research and monitoring until Pathfinder.

Pathfinder was sent into orbit to test the operation of the module in orbit. The experimental voyage is intended to pave the way for EP’s future orbital science work as it makes observations in the soft X-ray wavelength range.

EP will investigate open questions in time-domain astrophysics through the observation of transients. The mission is sponsored by CAS in collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics and is expected to fly by the end of 2023.

The WXT test module covers a field of view as wide as 340 square degrees (18.6°×18.6°), making it the first truly wide-field X-ray focusing telescope. X-ray imaging by bending light rays (focusing) is notorious because of the high energy of the X-ray photons; and it’s even more difficult to get clear images from a wide field of view. Thanks to a state-of-the-art technology called lobster eye microporous optics, the test module boasts a field of view at least 100 times larger than other focusing X-rays. A complete WXT for flight aboard the EP will consist of 12 such identical modules, covering a field of view as wide as 3,600 square degrees.

During the test flight, Pathfinder spent a total of four days of experimental observations in orbit and obtained real X-ray spectra and images based on real measurements.

Pathfinder’s key components include an X-ray imaging mirror containing an array of 36 lobster-eye microporous plates and a focal-plane detector consisting of four arrays of large-format imaging sensors.

Although these results are still preliminary and require extensive data processing, the test flight demonstrates that even a single observation can capture X-ray sources from all directions within the observed region of the sky, including stellar mass black holes and star neutrons. The observation also captured X-ray flare from the binary system containing the neutron star. Data from these observations provide information on how the X-ray emission from such celestial bodies changes over time, as well as the X-ray spectra of these celestial bodies. The images and spectra obtained from the test observations are in good agreement with the simulations.

The instrument was also aimed at a number of other X-ray sources, including the Large Magellanic Cloud (LMC), one of our neighboring galaxies. The results demonstrate that even a single observation can cover this entire galaxy, revealing several sources of X-ray emission, including black holes, neutron stars and supernova remnants. The instrument’s sharp image of the distant quasar 3C 382, ​​810 million light-years away, shows its ability to detect relatively faint X-ray sources. In future observations, the device is expected to effectively monitor the variability of the X-ray emission of celestial bodies and detect new transient sources.

According to Dr. Yuan Weiming, principal investigator (PI) of the EP mission and scientist at the National Astronomical Observatory of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (NAOC), initial results show that “the instrument is working smoothly” and meets the requirements of the EP WXT module. “It’s very exciting to see how this ten-year effort is bearing the first fruits,” he smiled.

Other researchers involved in the EP mission were also pleased.

Dr. ZHANG Chen, the initiator of the WXT mirror assembly, said the results promise “a wealth of high-quality data” after the probe’s launch.

Professor Paul O’Brien, ESA’s appointed scientist for the EP mission and researcher at the University of Leicester, said the results were “really impressive”.

“We’ve been waiting for a true wide-field, soft X-ray image for decades, so it’s great to see the WXT test module in flight on the EP-WXT Pathfinder,” said Professor Richard Willingale, O’Brien Professor at the University of Leicester.

IMAGE CREDIT: CAS/ESA/Gaia/DPAC


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