The telescope is designed to assist astronomers in probing the universe’s most vibrant regions, while the moon project will facilitate the progression of precise lunar landing mechanisms.
On a recent Thursday morning in Japan, a telescope as large as a bus equipped with X-Ray capabilities ascended into space.
It had company. Accompanying it was a robotic moon lander, comparable in size to a compact food van. The dual missions, named XRISM and SLIM, would soon embark on separate paths; one set to observe the universe’s most intense regions, and the other to enable JAXA, Japan’s space agency, to evaluate technologies intended for more ambitious lunar landings in upcoming years.
The launch, originating from Tanegashima Island in southern Japan, was visually striking. The Japanese H-IIA rocket gracefully ascended from the secluded launch pad, piercing the azure skies dotted with a few clouds. Roughly 47 minutes post-launch, a live broadcast showcased jubilant launch officials in the control room, marking the moment XRISM and SLIM spacecrafts embarked on their distinct cosmic journeys.
The primary mission, the X-Ray Imaging and Spectroscopy Mission (abbreviated as XRISM and pronounced akin to “chrism”), will operate from an orbit 350 miles above Earth. Its objective is to investigate unique cosmic regions emitting X-Ray radiation, such as material accumulation around black holes, scorching plasma within galaxy clusters, and remnants of massive star explosions.
The data retrieved from this telescope will illuminate the movement and chemical composition of these cosmic sites using spectroscopy. This method discerns changes in brightness across various wavelengths to deduce information about their makeup. XRISM’s insights will enrich astronomers’ multifaceted understanding of the universe.
Makoto Tashiro, the chief investigator of the telescope and a JAXA astrophysicist, conveyed via email that XRISM’s spectroscopy will unveil energy exchanges between celestial entities with unmatched clarity.
JAXA spearheads this mission, with collaboration from NASA and contributions from the European Space Agency (ESA). This international partnership ensures that European astronomers receive a share of the telescope’s observation time.
XRISM is a reincarnation of the Hitomi mission, a JAXA initiative from 2016. Unfortunately, the Hitomi telescope malfunctioned shortly after launch, resulting in lost communication.
Brian J. Williams, a NASA Goddard Space Flight Center astrophysicist and former Hitomi team member, now affiliated with XRISM, expressed the profound disappointment of the Hitomi mission’s premature end. He emphasized the importance of reviving the mission, citing its potential to revolutionize X-ray astronomy.
Cosmic X-rays can only be detected beyond Earth’s atmosphere, which acts as a protective barrier against this harmful radiation. XRISM will join an array of existing X-ray telescopes, such as NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory from 1999 and the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer launched in 2021.
XRISM’s standout feature is an instrument named Resolve, which requires supercooling to detect minute temperature variations upon X-ray impact. The data from Resolve is anticipated to be 30 times clearer than Chandra’s outputs.
Lia Corrales, a University of Michigan astronomer and mission participant, views XRISM as a groundbreaking initiative in X-ray observations. Using its advanced spectroscopy, she plans to study interstellar dust to understand the universe’s chemical evolution.
Jan-Uwe Ness, an ESA astronomer overseeing Europe’s observation time allocation, eagerly anticipates the unparalleled data quality from XRISM’s spectroscopy. He believes it will pave the way for future X-ray telescopes.
XRISM also features a secondary instrument, Xtend, which will work in tandem with Resolve. While Resolve offers a close-up view, Xtend provides a broader perspective, granting scientists diverse insights into X-ray sources. Dr. Williams notes that Xtend’s imaging capabilities, although less potent than the older Chandra telescope, will capture the cosmos in a manner akin to human X-ray vision.
Upon reaching low-Earth orbit, the XRISM team will spend several months calibrating the instruments. Scientific operations are slated to commence in January, with initial findings expected after a year or more. Dr. Tashiro eagerly anticipates the instruments’ activation, confident in their potential to redefine X-ray astronomy.
Dr. Williams is most excited about the unforeseen discoveries XRISM might unveil. He believes every new mission brings novel revelations about the universe.
The Smart Lander for Investigating Moon (SLIM) is en route to the moon but might not be the immediate next to land. SLIM’s journey will span at least four months, conserving propellant. This extended trajectory means two American spacecrafts, from Astrobotic Technology and Intuitive Machines, might precede SLIM in landing on the moon.
SLIM’s primary mission isn’t scientific research but to showcase a precise navigation system, targeting a landing accuracy within the dimensions of a football field.
Presently, lunar landers aim for landing sites spanning several miles. For instance, India’s Chandrayaan-3 had a landing zone of seven by 34 miles. JAXA’s press kit highlights the limitations of space-hardened computer chips, which possess a fraction of Earth-based chips’ processing power.
For SLIM, JAXA devised rapid image-processing algorithms compatible with slower space chips. As SLIM approaches its lunar landing, integrated systems like cameras, radar, and lasers will guide its descent.
Current lunar landing risks often dictate landings on flatter terrains. Enhanced navigation systems could facilitate landings near scientifically intriguing terrains, such as craters with frozen water.
At launch, SLIM weighed over 1,500 pounds, with propellant constituting over two-thirds of this weight. In comparison, the Indian lunar lander and its rover weighed approximately 3,800 pounds, with an additional propulsion module weighing 4,700 pounds.