Passion and Precision: Meet IXPE Italian ‘Primo Tecnologo’ Elisabetta Cavazzuti

By Rick Smith

Italian astrophysicist Elisabetta Cavazzuti spends her spare time rappelling down steep cliffs and waterfalls. This sport, called “canyoning,” combines a sharp respect for physics and precision engineering with a deep love for the beauty of nature.

The rest of the time, her focus is on the stars, which demand the same precise, passionate mix.

Since 2018, Cavazzuti has served as the Italian Space Agency’s “Primo Tecnologo” – or program manager-cum-chief technologist – for IXPE (Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer). In that role, she’s the coordinator for all technical and management activities for the first X-ray polarimetry mission ever flown – and she’s proud of the unprecedented nature of the work.

A woman with short brown hair talks on the phone in an office with images from IXPE behind her.
Elisabetta Cavazzuti, the Italian IXPE program manager, coordinates all IXPE technical and management activities for the Italian Space Agency, which partners with NASA on the X-ray polarimetry mission and its results. (Photo courtesy of Elisabetta Cavazzuti)

“IXPE is such a new science that when we go to conferences to present results, we still get comparatively few questions,” she said. “People are just beginning to understand the scale of the new window X-ray polarimetry has opened for us. We’re helping X-ray astronomers and researchers expand their knowledge. This work is special.”

Cavazzuti, who has spent much of her career specializing in gamma ray and X-ray studies, earned a degree in astrophysics in 1995 at the University of Bologna and a doctorate in astronomy in 2006 at the Sapienza University of Rome.

While completing her doctoral studies, she joined the aerospace industry, initially helping to develop and test the soft gamma-ray detector on the European Space Agency’s INTEGRAL (International Gamma-Ray Astrophysics Laboratory) satellite. Cavazzuti was tasked with assembling INTEGRAL’s soft gamma-ray detector, a compact piece of hardware covered in 4,096 scintillator crystals, which turn light into electrical current.

“I spent four years in a clean room, testing different glues to couple the elements, testing filters to wrap each individual scintillator, testing the detector itself,” she said. “It was pure experimental physics, and it helped shape my career.”

From there, she joined the Italian Space Agency in 2001, immersing herself in X-ray and gamma-ray studies of extragalactic sources including blazars and contributing to other Italian and joint international space science missions.

Cavazzuti joined the FERMI mission team in 2006, leading construction of the gamma-ray imager and later serving as co-leader of FERMI science working groups dedicated to studies of active galactic nuclei and blazars and to cataloguing sources observed by the telescope. In time, she was asked to serve as coordinator for the global FERMI collaboration. She accepted the one-year post, and spent 2017 at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, overseeing all eight FERMI science working groups.

Since then, she has returned to her dual science-and-technology leadership role, continuing her own gamma-ray research while also guiding new flight missions and science instruments, including IXPE, from drawing board to post-launch data analysis. She liaises with academic partners at Italy’s National Institute of Astrophysics and National Institute for Nuclear Physics and with industry worldwide. In 2015, she led the Italian Space Agency’s development and delivery of the Italian contribution to the Japanese-led CALET (CALorimetric Electron Telescope), which aids studies of cosmic rays and dark matter on the International Space Station.

The lure of space science first drew Cavazzuti as a high school astronomy student. Her talent for program management isn’t built on the same fundamental passion, she said – but what keeps her engaged is the people.

“In our program, management permits me to focus on the team,” she said. “Of course we work to ensure projects are on schedule and on cost, but all of it hinges on oversight of people: engineers, scientists, professors, contractors. Every time we assemble a team, there are new ideas and insights, new group dynamics. That’s the element I like most.”

A woman in rock climbing gear is seen climbing up a rock.
In her spare time, Elisabetta Cavazzuti, seen here among fellow fans of the outdoors, enjoys climbing steep cliffs, waterfalls, and other dizzying heights. (Photo courtesy of Elisabetta Cavazzuti)

Cavazzuti – who enjoys hiking, skiing, and caving as well as canyoning – said she’s reluctant to give up either of the hats she now wears, despite her very busy schedule. Both, she said, are vital to succeed.

“I work to keep my research alive, because that intensive scientific investigation keeps me engaged,” she said. “And managing programs helps me understand and guide what the instruments can do when they fly. With each new mission, I learn a new piece of technology and a new aspect of science.”

As work on IXPE continues, Cavazzuti is already taking on new endeavors. First up is the planned European Space Agency satellite ATHENA (Advanced Telescope for High Energy Astrophysics), a large X-ray observatory launching in 2037 to detect the formation and evolution of the highest-energy sources in the cosmos: black holes, gamma ray bursts, even the plasma contained in dark matter.

Solid time management makes it all possible, she said, but curiosity – the unflagging desire to observe, to seek, to explore – is the most critical factor.

“People often fear they lack the brainpower to embrace science and technology. They ask themselves, ‘Am I intelligent enough to understand this work?’ Yes! We all are! I’m not an expert on many things; I change focus too often to become an expert in some areas of study,” Cavazzuti said.

“But I am curious, and I am surrounded by curious people,” she added, “and together we walk the same path.”

Learn more about IXPE and its international partnership here.

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.

Meet IXPE Scientist Abel Lawrence Peirson

Artificial intelligence (AI) has led Abel Lawrence Peirson to all kinds of interesting places. He’s used AI techniques to examine brain activity in flies and other neuroscience applications. With the help of AI, he’s even trained a neural network to create internet memes, displaying phrases on images in a way that looks like a human made them to be funny — at least some of the time.

Abel Lawrence Peirson
Abel Lawrence Peirson

Now, Peirson, a doctoral student at Stanford University, is using his AI skills to help solve some the universe’s mysteries through NASA’s Imaging X-Ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE) mission. It’s a spacecraft that looks at the polarization of X-rays from extreme objects like supernova remnants, neutron stars, and black holes. Polarization describes how the X-ray light is oriented as it travels through space, offering clues to the physics going on in these extreme objects.

To help scientists analyze and interpret IXPE data, Peirson applies a technique called “supervised machine learning.” That means he trains computer models to reconstruct previous events – in this case, the polarization that led to the patterns of X-ray light detection that IXPE sees. It’s kind of like if you see a dented car next to a pole and could reconstruct exactly how fast, and at what angle, the car hit the pole. “We take a really good simulator of the telescope, and then teach the model to reverse” to figure out what kind of polarization leads to IXPE’s detection’s, Peirson explains.

One of the objects he’s interested in is called a “blazar.” A blazar is a special case of an “active galactic nucleus,” composed of a central supermassive black hole that’s actively feeding off material from a surrounding disk, making it appear very bright in the sky. Jets of high-energy particles spew out, and when the jets are oriented towards us, that makes the object a blazar.

A big mystery about these blazars is whether protons, which are some of the subatomic particles that make up the stuff of the world as we know it, contribute significantly to the energy emission from these jets. Protons are examples of “hadrons,” a type of particle that is made of two or more smaller particles called quarks (you may have heard of the Large Hadron Collider, for example). Hadrons may be colliding with particles of light, called photons, and those clashes would produce particles and light in the jets. “So, if we could measure the polarization, this is a really good probe as to whether there are hadronic processes happening,” Peirson said.

Before he got to work on a space mission, Peirson thought that being a professional scientist would mean more doing math and building computer models. While those skills are important, software programming has turned out to be a huge part of his work. “In the end, if you want to be really impactful nowadays, I think that is sort of reality,” he said. “You need to build usable tools or things that people can build on, and that is, like 99% of the time, software.”

One of the biggest challenges of his work is coordinating with a big collaboration. With lots of team members in multiple countries working on IXPE, Peirson quickly realized that science on this mission is not a solitary endeavor. “You’re part of a team and you need to work within the confines of that team,” he said. “Overall, I’m very happy with how it’s turned out.”’

Peirson is multinational — he grew up in London, but his dad is American, and his mom is Spanish. As a child he loved watching Star Trek and reading Isaac Asimov’s novels, both of which sparked his imagination about space and what might be beyond Earth. After earning his undergraduate degree in physics at the University of Oxford, he pursued a Ph.D. at Stanford in Palo Alto, California, where he’s currently finishing up his dissertation.

His advice to future astrophysicists? Learn statistics and programming as soon as you can. “You’re getting data from the sky, in very weird forms that are very unique and difficult to understand, and then trying use models to understand them,” he said. “And that is essentially data science.”

 

Elizabeth Landau
NASA Headquarters