From Art to Space: Meet IXPE Flight Controller Kacie Davis

By Rick Smith

If the secret to happiness is pursuing and achieving goals that bring contentment to both the heart and the intellect, then Kacie Davis, a flight controller for NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE), is living her best life – and she took an unexpected path to get there.

LASP’s Kacie Davis, a women with long hair and glasses, is smiling and is sitting in front of computer screens
IXPE flight controller Kacie Davis discusses the academic journey that took her from earning a fine arts degree to studying astronomy at the University of Colorado-Boulder and then to her role in mission operations at LASP, supporting NASA’s innovative X-ray imaging mission. (Video still courtesy of CU-Boulder)

Initially, it wasn’t the Leawood, Kansas, native’s intent to pursue a STEM career – a path which led her to a seat on console in NASA’s partner organization, the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics (LASP) on the University of Colorado-Boulder campus.

Davis originally went to school to refine her art skills, earning undergraduate degrees in drawing and photography from Kansas State University in Manhattan, Kansas, and a master’s in studio art from the University of Connecticut in Storrs. Along the way she jockeyed a register at a videogame chain store to pay her rent, taught drawing and multimedia courses at U-Conn, and earned a first-degree black belt in taekwondo.

But some elusive question kept her searching for her professional niche. She had always created “abstract expressionist art that had a tendency to echo what space images look like,” she said. “I kept hearing that in my art critiques – and it slowly piqued my interest in outer space and the universe.” That led her to pursue an astronomy degree at CU-Boulder.

“It felt like this is a place where people get stuff done, and keep getting things done,” she said. “It was inspiring.”

It wasn’t an easy path for an artist whose last mathematics courses had been at least a decade earlier. “I’d never taken physics!” she said. “At first, I wasn’t following a lot of what my classmates and professors were talking about.”

But the science spurred her on – along with the growing desire to help answer some of the oldest universal questions known to humanity, to aid in unlocking secrets of the most powerful and mysterious space phenomena: black holes, quasars, and more. She earned a bachelor’s degree in astronomy in 2020, and became an IXPE flight controller in 2021.

Today, Davis spends much of her time as a flight controller monitoring and directing IXPE’s work as the spacecraft observes and tracks polarized X-rays emitted by powerful celestial objects. Imaging in space is often a one-dimensional process, snapping a photograph and observing the results, but IXPE delves deeper, she said. IXPE measures X-ray polarization, a property of light related to the orientation of the waves’ vibrations.

“Polarimetry is two-dimensional, measuring the direction of X-ray photons flowing away from their source, aiding us in determining brightness and the path of travel, where an object came from and where it might be heading,” she said. “IXPE can even help us measure the spin of black holes – something we’ve never directly measured before. How exciting is that!”

She also regularly works with undergraduate student trainees in the LASP, helping them hone the mission-ops skills that will, in time, enable them to chair a flight controller’s post of their own.

Both aspects of the work, she said, “make me feel like I’m contributing to finding answers to the unknown – which is what I’d been searching for in art. That is quite rewarding.”

In the first months of 2022, Davis was thrilled to be part of the team that helped IXPE acquire its first target of study, Cassiopeia A – the remains of a star that exploded in the 17th century. Ten light-years in diameter, “Cas-A” is a bright ball of superheated gas and glowing cosmic ray particles some 11,000 light-years from Earth.

“We’ve looked at Cas-A a million times, but IXPE showed us more than we’d ever seen before,” Davis said. “It’s a brand-new set of eyes, looking at the universe in a completely new way.”

Not a bad way to describe Davis herself.

IXPE Mission Team Profile: The Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics University of Colorado-Boulder

By Rick Smith

As NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer mission explores black holes, neutron stars, and other cosmic phenomena – helping to answer fundamental questions about extreme space environments – it relies on the mission operations team at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, or LASP.

Some 700 people – engineers, scientists, mission-operations personnel and data specialists – staff the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics, housed on the campus of the University of Colorado-Boulder.

College students sit as computers lined in a row to work on IXPE.
Student command controllers – and aerospace engineering science majors – Adrian Bryant, left, and Rithik Gangopadhyay, center, work with IXPE flight controller Kacie Davis, monitoring NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer spacecraft from the mission operations center at the Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics on the campus of the University of Colorado-Boulder. Between 100-150 undergraduate and graduate students help maintain around-the-clock LASP operations. (NASA/CU-Boulder)

For the IXPE mission, LASP flight controllers and support teams monitor and maintain all command and control functions for the spacecraft, as well as planning and scheduling, data integrity, and spacecraft health and safety.

“I get very excited about IXPE science results,” said LASP flight controller Kacie Davis. “IXPE is unique and groundbreaking because it measures polarized X-ray imagery – tracing light back to its source by precisely measuring its brightness and the direction in which photons flow from the source.”

Research leads in the IXPE Science Operations Center at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, identify targets and instruct LASP flight controllers to point at them for specific intervals, fine-tune calibrations, and collect the resulting data. All raw-data findings are processed and delivered to the primary IXPE science team within seven days of each completed observation.

Most of the cosmic objects IXPE observes are part of a carefully managed, year-long science operations plan, but the LASP team also may get alerted to reposition the spacecraft to observe unique targets of opportunity, known as “TOOs” in mission-ops vernacular. Such phenomena – a new supernova, perhaps, or an overstuffed black hole trying to digest a neutron star – are rare, but the LASP team is quick to respond, at any hour.

“It’s a lot of work and a quick turnaround, like having a child,” said researcher Stephanie Ruswick, who in late 2022 will succeed LASP’s current flight director, Darren Osborne. “The other night, my 1-year-old slept through the night… but IXPE did not! Our team is always ready to step up and meet those unanticipated requests.”

Trained students on console
The LASP team includes a cadre of CU-Boulder undergraduates, Osborne said – a big advantage for career-minded engineering and science students.

A college aded young woman sits at a computer.
Researcher Stephanie Ruswick, front, LASP’s incoming flight director, oversees IXPE flight operations alongside student lead Alexander Pichler, center, and Rithik Gangopadhyay, both aerospace engineering students at the University of Colorado-Boulder. IXPE – orbiting some 370 miles from Earth – enables researchers to study polarized X-ray emissions from black holes, neutron stars, pulsars, and other sources. (NASA/CU-Boulder)

The summer prior to their junior year, students can enroll in an intensive, 12-week training program to join the team. They train side-by-side with certified LASP command controllers, learning all they can about executing flight operations, monitoring the health of spacecraft in flight, and troubleshooting issues in real time. Each student must complete a checklist of 300 mission-critical tasks on console and pass three written exams.

The paid positions don’t earn the undergrads course credit at the university, “but it gives them a definite leg up on their career goals,” Osborne said. “It’s a big commitment.”

Among those undergraduates now on console is Alexander Pichler, an aerospace engineering senior and the student lead for IXPE. He said there’s no substitute for learning in a practical environment like this one, which complements and informs every facet of his classroom education.

“It really has been an extraordinary opportunity,” said Pichler, now midway through his second year on the LASP team. “Now and then, I step back and think ‘I’m sending commands to a spacecraft that’s up there right now, helping to expand our understanding of the universe.’ It’s a truly horizon-widening experience.”

Davis, who graduated from CU-Boulder in 2020 with a degree in astronomy before joining the mission operations team, agrees.

“We’re doing brand new things that have never been done before, poking at big questions a lot of people shy away from: How is this possible? How can this exist?” she said. “It’s so exciting to be a part of it – helping to further a larger scientific conversation.”

More about LASP
Founded in 1948 on the campus of the University of Colorado-Boulder, LASP initially was known as the Upper Air Laboratory, where scientists studied the upper atmosphere using instruments, stabilizing technologies and pointing platforms of their own design. When researchers spun off in 1956 to form Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corporation in Boulder, the university expanded its own program and renamed the facility.

A team of people of LASP sit at computer desks lined against the wall to work on IXPE.
Credits: LASP

Since then, LASP has sent an instrument to every planet in the solar system and beyond, contributing imaging and sensing data to a variety of high-profile NASA missions, including Galileo, Mariner, Viking, and LADEE. LADEE, flown in 2013 and 2014, helped NASA better understand electrostatically charged dust on the Moon – a crucial need for Artemis-era human exploration of the lunar surface. The LASP team also led mission operations for NASA’s Kepler spacecraft – which identified more than 2,500 verified planets orbiting distant stars from 2009 to 2018.

And the work continues. LASP will participate in the upcoming Near-Earth Object Surveyor mission to spot and track large asteroids and comets that could pose a risk to Earth – and Libera, tracking climate change by documenting energy dispersal from Earth’s atmosphere. Both missions are scheduled to launch later in this decade.

More about IXPE
Managed by Marshall, IXPE is a collaborative effort with LASP; Ball Aerospace; the Italian Space Agency; McGill University in Montreal; Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Roma Tre University in Rome; Stanford University in Stanford, California; and OHB Italia in Milan, Italy.

Molly Porter
NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center

IXPE Quickly Observes Aftermath of Exceptional Cosmic Blast

On Oct. 9, 2022, NASA’s Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope and Neil Gehrels Swift Observatory detected a high-energy blast of light from deep space. The light came from a powerful explosion called a gamma-ray burst dubbed GRB 221009A that ranks among the most luminous known. Scientists around the world trained their telescopes on the aftermath.

Michela Negro, a postdoctoral research assistant at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, could not have been in a better place. She was attending the 10th Fermi Symposium, a gathering of gamma-ray astronomers, in Johannesburg, South Africa. She grabbed two colleagues and started doing the math to see if it might be possible to catch polarized X-rays with the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE).

On a black background, thousands of tiny, blood-red and orange dots encircle a larger, brighter, yellow dot.
The aftermath of GRB 221009A, as seen by NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE). (Credits: IXPE)

Gamma-ray bursts (GRBs) are unpredictable and fleeting. The IXPE science team had not planned to observe one, but this burst created a unique opportunity. And a quick turnaround was essential.

“We got some promising numbers, so we submitted a target of opportunity request,” said Negro, who led IXPE observation of the burst. This process allows the team to interrupt its long-term plan to retarget for high-interest, time-critical sources.

“In the request you have to justify why you want to point the telescope that way and why so quickly,” Negro continued, “so we just said, ‘This is now or never.’”

For space-based telescopes like IXPE, observing an unplanned target is not as simple as it might sound. It takes a lot of coordination between the IXPE science operations team at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, the mission operations manager at Ball Aerospace in Colorado, and the mission operations team at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics.

“From the time we got the request until we were observing the target was roughly 36 hours,” said Amy Walden, IXPE’s project manager at Marshall. “The team really did an amazing job. They recognized the incredible opportunity this was, so everyone was working as quickly as they could.”

Stephen Lesage also dropped everything when he learned about the event. Lesage is a graduate research assistant at the University of Alabama in Huntsville and Fermi Gamma-ray Burst Monitor (GBM) team member.

“I was in Atlanta for a Major League Soccer game, but my phone was constantly vibrating with notifications, so I knew it was something big,” Lesage said. “I went back to my hotel room and sat at the desk in the corner until 3 a.m. working on it. But even when the work was done, I couldn’t sleep, I was too excited.”

The signal, originating from the direction of the constellation Sagitta, had traveled an estimated 1.9 billion light years to reach Earth. Astronomers think it could be the birth cry of a new black hole, one that formed in the heart of a massive star collapsing under its own gravity. In these circumstances, a nascent black hole drives powerful jets of particles traveling near the speed of light. The jets pierce through the star, emitting X-rays and gamma rays as they stream into space.

The light from this ancient explosion brings with it new insights into stellar collapse, the birth of a black hole, the behavior and interaction of matter near the speed of light, the conditions in a distant galaxy, and much more. Another GRB this bright may not appear for decades.

“I believe that an event like this won’t happen again in my lifetime,” Negro said.

“It was at least 10 times brighter than the previous record-holder, GRB 130427A,” said GBM Principal Investigator Colleen Wilson-Hodge at Marshall. She also noted that scientists observed an unusually bright and long-lasting afterglow from the burst.

Scientists are still analyzing this data and forming conclusions about what the observations mean. For Walden, it was exciting to see IXPE play a role.

“That’s what IXPE is for: we’re uniquely qualified to search for X-ray polarization,” she said. “GRB 221009A was likely the only chance in our mission lifetime to view one.”

IXPE is a partnership between NASA and the Italian Space Agency.

By Hannah Maginot

IXPE Celebrates 1 Year of Exploring the Cosmos

One year ago, NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) lit up the early morning sky as it started its journey into space. The satellite was launched on a Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Dec. 9, 2021.

A rocket launches, trailed by bright blue and warm white flames that leave a pile of billowy smoke clouds on the ground.
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches with NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) spacecraft onboard from Launch Complex 39A on Dec. 9, 2021, at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Credits: NASA/Joel Kowsky)

IXPE is the first satellite dedicated to measuring the polarization of X-rays from a variety of cosmic sources, such as black holes and neutron stars. Polarization is a property of light that gives scientists important information about cosmic objects. Before IXPE, X-ray polarization was rarely measured in space. In just one year, IXPE has conducted measurements no telescope has ever been able to make before.

Here’s a look at some of IXPE’s accomplishments in the first year of its mission:

IXPE is just getting started. Its baseline mission duration is two years, so with at least one more year of exploration to go, the satellite is poised to make more exciting discoveries about the intricacies of X-ray polarization. Happy first anniversary, IXPE!

By Hannah Maginot

IXPE Checks Out X-rays from Extreme Objects

NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) mission, a joint effort with the Italian Space Agency, has returned data that no other spacecraft has obtained before from a few extreme cosmic objects.

NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE)
NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE)

Launched in December 2021, IXPE has detected polarized X-rays from three of its first six targets. Polarized X-rays carry unique details about where the light comes from and what it passes through. By combining these details with measurements of X-rays’ energy and how they change over time, we get a fuller picture of an object and how it works.

Prior to IXPE, the only cosmic object with polarized X-ray measurements was the Crab Nebula, the wreckage of a massive, exploded star whose light swept past Earth nearly 1,000 years ago. In these new observations, IXPE has confirmed the previous Crab Nebula measurements and detected X-ray polarization from a neutron star and a magnetar. A magnetar is a highly magnetic neutron star, a dense object left in the wake of a stellar explosion.

Scientists are now analyzing these preliminary data to better understand what they mean and how they fit in with other observations of these objects.

“Now in its third month of science operations, IXPE is performing as anticipated and is measuring the X-ray polarization of cosmic sources in the high-energy universe,” said Steve O’Dell, IXPE’s project scientist at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. “We are excited to see these new results, about a half-century after the pioneering work of IXPE’s principal investigator Martin Weisskopf and look forward to using this new tool to understand better the workings of neutron stars, black holes, and more.”

Weisskopf was part of a team from Columbia University that first detected polarized X-rays from the Crab Nebula in 1971 using a sounding rocket experiment. About five years later, in 1976 and 1977, the Columbia team used NASA’s eighth Orbiting Solar Observatory (OSO-8) to confirm that X-rays from the Crab Nebula are polarized by a degree of almost 20 percent. IXPE measures the polarization of X-rays with higher precision, but its preliminary results agree with observations from OSO-8 and more recent measurements taken by a small satellite called PolarLight.

Composite image of the Crab Nebula
Composite image of the Crab Nebula with X-rays from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory (blue and white), optical light from NASA’s Hubble Space Telescope (purple), and infrared light from NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope (pink).
Credits: X-ray: NASA/CXC/SAO; Optical: NASA/STScI; Infrared: NASA-JPL-Caltech

Another object IXPE has looked at recently is the magnetar 4U 0142+61 in the constellation Cassiopeia. The third object that IXPE detected polarized X-rays is the binary accreting neutron star system Hercules X-1, which consists of a low-mass star and a neutron star that is pulling material off it.

The other targets for IXPE’s first science observations were the supernova remnant Cassiopeia A and the active galaxy Centaurus A, as well as the Sagittarius A Complex at the center of the Milky Way, a region that includes the black hole Sagittarius A*. Preliminary analyses have not detected X-ray polarization from these objects so far, but more detailed analyses are underway.

IXPE’s first datasets are now publicly available through NASA’s High Energy Astrophysics Science Archive Research Center, managed by the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

IXPE Begins Science Operations

This week, after having spent just over a month in space, IXPE began science operations. The observatory’s boom was deployed successfully on Dec. 15, and the team then spent three weeks checking out the observatory’s maneuvering and pointing abilities and aligning the telescopes. On Jan. 11, IXPE began observing its first official scientific target: Cassiopeia A. Those observations will last about three weeks. Learn more.

Cassiopeia A supernova remnant

IXPE’s first official scientific target is Cassiopeia A, or Cas A, the remains of a massive star that blew itself apart in a supernova around 350 years ago in our own Milky Way galaxy. Supernovae are filled with magnetic energy and accelerate particles to near light-speed, making them laboratories for studying extreme physics in space.

This image shows Cas A as seen by NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. IXPE will provide details about Cas A’s magnetic field structure that can’t be observed in other ways. By studying the X-ray polarization, scientists can work out the detailed structure of its magnetic field and the sites where these particles pick up speed.


IXPE Unfolds its Origami Boom for Science

NASA’s newest X-ray observatory – the Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer, or IXPE – extended its boom successfully Dec. 15, giving IXPE the ability to see high-energy X-rays. The mission, which launched on Dec. 9, is one step closer to studying some of the most energetic and mysterious places in the universe in a new way.

A gif of IXPE deploying in space
A gif of IXPE deploying in space before starting its science operations to study the cosmos.

The IXPE observatory features three identical telescopes, each with a mirror assembly and a polarization-sensitive detector. To focus X-rays, IXPE’s mirrors need to be about 13 feet (4 meters) away from the detectors. That’s too large to fit inside some rocket fairings. So IXPE’s boom had to fold up, like origami, into a 12-inch (0.3-meter) cannister and stretch out again in orbit.

“For those of us in the space game, moving parts are always frightening,” said Martin Weisskopf, IXPE’s principal investigator at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. “Right now, I’m smiling from ear to ear.”

With the boom now deployed, mission specialists are ready to focus on commissioning the telescopes, preparing them for the spacecraft’s first science. 

NASA’s IXPE Journeys to Explore the Universe

NASA's IXPE launch from Kennedy Space Center
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launches with NASA’s Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) spacecraft onboard from Launch Complex 39A, Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021, at 1 a.m. EST, from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Photo credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

NASA’s Imaging X-Ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) mission launched at 1 a.m. EST Thursday on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

A joint effort with the Italian Space Agency, the IXPE observatory is NASA’s first mission dedicated to measuring the polarization of X-rays from the most extreme and mysterious objects in the universe – supernova remnants, supermassive black holes, and dozens of other high-energy objects.

Click here to read the full feature.

IXPE Teams Communicating with NASA Spacecraft

We have signal acquisition, meaning teams are now communicating with NASA’s Imaging X-Ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) spacecraft, as it embarks on its two-year journey to study changes in the polarization of X-ray light through some of the universe’s most extreme sources, including black holes, dead stars known as pulsars, and more.

“Everything has gone smoothly; we just crossed over Africa and acquired signal of the spacecraft,” said NASA Senior Launch Director Omar Baez. “They’ll start exposing the solar rays and doing their deployments, so you can’t ask for any better than that.”

Falcon 9 Second Stage Separates from IXPE Spacecraft

IXPE spacecraft separation
NASA’s IXPE spacecraft separates from the second stage of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket on Thursday, Dec. 9, 2021. Image credit: NASA

NASA’s Imaging X-Ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) spacecraft just reached a major milestone as it successfully separated from the second stage of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket.

IXPE will now continue on its journey to study changes in the polarization of X-ray light through some of the universe’s most extreme sources, including black holes, dead stars known as pulsars, and more.

Click here to learn more about the IXPE mission.