Irresistible Gravity: Meet IXPE General Observer Program Lead Kavitha Arur

By Rick Smith

A black hole is a region of spacetime where gravity is so relentless that nothing nearby – not stars, not even light – can resist its pull.

Astrophysicist Kavitha Arur can’t resist it either. She’s been fascinated with black holes since childhood.

Kavitha Arur sits at her desk and works on the computer in her office.
Kavitha Arur, IXPE General Observer Program lead at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, ponders new science proposals using the powerful X-ray imager. The window for proposals from the science community closes Oct. 18. (Photo: NASA)

“I always enjoyed mysteries and solving puzzles, and astronomy is full of them,” said Arur, a post-doctoral researcher at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “By ninth grade, all I wanted to study was black holes – the most extreme objects in the known universe, puzzles just waiting to be solved.”

Today, Arur leads the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) General Observer Program, which invites astrophysicists and other space scientists around the world to propose and take part in studies using the IXPE telescope. The program enables scientists to propose targets of study across the cosmos: black holes, neutron stars, active galactic nuclei, supernova remnants, and other high-energy X-ray sources.

Launched in late 2021, IXPE’s science activities so far have been directed by researchers at NASA and the Italian Space Agency, in conjunction with a science advisory team including more than 175 researchers from 13 countries.

When the General Observer Program commences in February 2024, as much as 80% of IXPE’s time will be made available to the broader scientific community.

“We’re excited to expand IXPE’s reach and usefulness,” Arur said. “We want to maximize science outputs as widely as possible and cover the widest possible range of targets.”

Born and raised in Chennai, India, Arur filled her high school schedule with as much general science and mathematics as possible and, upon graduation, resolved to pursue her passion wherever it led. She earned her integrated bachelor’s and master’s degree in physics and astronomy at the University of Southampton in the United Kingdom in 2013, a Master of Science in physics at Texas Tech University in Lubbock in 2015, and a doctorate in physics at Texas Tech in 2020.

Her research primarily focuses on X-ray binaries, wherein a black hole or neutron star strips a nearby companion star of material. Arur applies a fairly new analysis technique called the bispectrum – developed to study ocean waves and used to assess how brainwaves change under anesthesia – to study quasi-periodic oscillations from these X-ray binary systems. Her work is helping to decipher the geometry of regions close to the black hole, enabling researchers to create better geometric models to explain the complex timing behavior of these objects.

IXPE, which measures X-ray polarization – the average direction and intensity of the electric field of light waves – offers a similarly unique and unprecedented research opportunity, she said. And under her leadership, the General Observer Program will take full advantage of it.

“We’re working closely with IXPE mission leads at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center to determine how best to serve and benefit the entire research community,” she said. “We’ve also enlisted the help of NASA information technologists and data archive managers to ensure a smooth transition from the prime mission to the general observer program. Our chief goal to enable every interested party to use, analyze, and interpret IXPE data.”

The call for IXPE General Observer Program study proposals can be found here. The window for proposals closes Oct. 18.

Jonathan Deal
NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center