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Northwestern rocket returns to Earth after 15-minute journey through space

Micro-X rocket launch marks the first time a new type of X-ray spectrometer was used in space

As astronomer Carl Sagan famously said, “We are made of star stuff.” So to better understand ourselves, we must look out into the galaxy.

On July 22, a Northwestern University research team did just that. A 10-year, NASA-funded project culminated with the launch of the “Micro-X” rocket from White Sands Missile Range in southern New Mexico.

The research team was led by physicist  Enectali Figueroa-Feliciano, an associate professor of physics and astronomy in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and an associate member of Northwestern’s Center for Interdisciplinary Exploration and Research in Astrophysics (CIERA). 

Short for “high-resolution microcalorimeter X-ray imaging rocket,” the Micro-X rocket carried a superconductor-based X-ray imaging spectrometer that is capable of capturing unprecedentedly high-resolution images of various astronomical objects. This was the first time this type of instrument was used in space.

The Micro-X rocket was meant to observe the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A, a star in the Cassiopeia constellation that exploded approximately 11,000 light-years away from Earth. Due to problems with the mission's pointing system, those images were not possible on this flight, but researchers did demonstrate the detectors, along with their superconducting electronics readout, working for the first time in space.

Researchers are aiming to collect detailed information about the elements ejected from star explosions in order to better understand conditions closer to home. 

“We want to see how ‘star stuff’ is made because it is what allows life to exist,” Figueroa-Feliciano said. “We also want to understand how this ‘star stuff’ is spread from the explosion to seed the galaxy with the elements needed to make rocky planets like Earth.”

The six-story-tall rocket spent15 minutes in lower space before landing 50 miles from the initial launch site. Although the observation time was short, the supernova remnant's X-rays cannot penetrate the Earth’s atmosphere, so the instrument had to be sent into space to observe it. The team previously tested the rocket at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

“This instrument is the future of X-ray astronomy,” Figueroa-Feliciano said. “But constructing it has been a difficult endeavor. Once it launches, it needs to be a completely hands-off process; it has to turn on, record data, store data and send data back to us autonomously.” 

Collaborating institutions include the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, University of Wisconsin at Madison, National Institute of Standards and Technology and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

Originally published July 19. Update posted July 25.

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