ISS Utilization: NICER/SEXTANT
ISS Utilization: NICER/SEXTANT (Neutron-star Interior Composition ExploreR / Station Explorer for X-ray Timing and Navigation Technology)
NICER is an ISS instrument of NASA, devoted to the study of neutron stars through soft X-ray timing. Neutron stars are unique environments in which all four fundamental forces of nature are simultaneously important. They squeeze more than 1.4 solar masses into a city-size volume, giving rise to the highest stable densities known anywhere. The nature of matter under these conditions is a decades-old unsolved problem, one most directly addressed with measurements of the masses and, especially, radii of neutron stars to high precision (i.e., better than 10% uncertainty). With few such constraints forthcoming from observations, theory has advanced a host of models to describe the physics governing neutron star interiors; these models can be tested with astrophysical observations. 1)
NICER will enable rotation-resolved spectroscopy of the thermal and non-thermal emissions of neutron stars in the soft (0.2-12 keV) X-ray band with unprecedented sensitivity, probing interior structure, the origins of dynamic phenomena, and the mechanisms that underlie the most powerful cosmic particle accelerators known. The NICER mission achieves these goals by deploying an X-ray timing and spectroscopy instrument on the ISS (International Space Station).
By answering a long-standing astrophysics question — How big is a neutron star? — NICER will confront nuclear physics theory with unique measurements, exploring the exotic states of matter within neutron stars through rotation-resolved X-ray spectroscopy. The capabilities that NICER brings to this investigation are unique: simultaneous fast timing and spectroscopy, with low background and high throughput. NICER will also provide continuity in X-ray-timing astrophysics more broadly, post-RXTE (Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer), through a Guest Observer program. — Finally, in addition to its science goals, NICER will enable the first space demonstration of pulsar-based navigation of spacecraft, through the SEXTANT (Station Explorer for X-ray Timing and Navigation Technology ) enhancement to the mission, funded by the NASA Space Technology Mission Directorate's Game-Changing Development program.
NICER/SEXTANT, which NASA’s Science Mission Directorate selected in 2013 as its next Explorer Mission of Opportunity, is a one-of-a-kind investigation that not only will gather important scientific data, but also demonstrate advanced navigation technologies — all from a relatively low-cost instrument that takes advantage of an already-existing platform, the ISS. The ISS orbit, that ranges between ±51.6 º latitudes, will give the instrument a good view of the cosmos to accomplish both its scientific and technology objectives. 2) 3) 4) 5)
Once the NICER/SEXTANT instrument deploys as an external attached payload on one of the ISS ECL (ExPRESS Logistics Carriers), its 56 X-ray optics and silicon detectors will observe and gather data about the interior composition of neutron stars and their pulsating cohort, pulsars. In pulsars, the magnetic poles are especially luminous, affording an opportunity to also demonstrate celestial-based XNAV ( X-ray Navigation), a capability that could enhance NASA’s ability to pilot to the far reaches of the solar system and beyond.
Due to the pulsars rapid pulsations, with repetition periods that range from seconds to milliseconds, the powerful beams of radiation emanating from their magnetic poles sweep around much like a lighthouse, and are as seen as flashes of light at Earth. Because of their predictable pulsations, pulsars can provide high-precision timing just like atomic-clock signals, supplied through the GPS (Global Positioning System ), which weaken the farther one travels out beyond Earth and the GPS constellation.
Two-in-One Mission: To demonstrate XNAV, the payload will detect X-ray photons within the pulsars’ sweeping beams of light to estimate the arrival times of the pulses. With these measurements, the system will use specially developed algorithms to stitch together an onboard navigational solution.
The NASA NICER/SEXTANT team with Keith Gendreau as PI, includes partners/collaborators from MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Moog Inc., headquartered in East Aurora, New York, NRL (Naval Research Laboratory), and universities across the U.S., Canada, Mexico and Denmark. The experiment/investigation may also demonstrate a second technology — X-ray communication — that, if advanced, potentially could allow space travelers in the future to transmit gigabytes of data per second over interplanetary distances.
At the heart of this potential demonstration is the MXS (Modulated X-ray Source), which the team developed to test and validate the XNAV concept. The technology generates rapid-fire X-ray pulses, turning on and off many times per second, encoding digital bits for transmitting data. If the team attracts additional support, perhaps from other government agencies interested in advancing X-ray communication, the team plans to develop an MXS-based transmitter that would fly on a future ISS supply spacecraft. As the craft approached the space station, MXS would transmit data via the modulated X-rays, which the NICER/SEXTANT hardware would then receive.
Neutron stars squeeze more than 1.4 Solar masses into a city-size volume, giving rise to the highest stable densities and pressures known anywhere (Figure 1). The nature of matter under these conditions, in which all four fundamental forces of Nature are simultaneously important, is a decades-old unsolved problem, one most directly addressed with measurements of the masses and, especially, radii of neutron stars to high precision (i.e., to better than 10% uncertainty). Existing instrumentation does not provide the critical measurement capability — combined time and spectral resolutions in X-rays — needed to probe the physics of neutron star interiors. With order-of-magnitude advances in time-coherent sensitivity and timing resolution, NICER/SEXTANT will carry out rotation-resolved spectroscopy of rapidly rotating neutron stars, enabling lightcurve analyses with unique power to constrain models of neutron star structure, dynamics, and energetics. 6) 7)
Figure 1: NICER will infer the masses and radii of neutron stars to reveal the composition of matter in their interiors, at the highest stable densities allowed in nature (image credit: NASA, NICER Team)
A little bit of “scruff” in scientific data 50 years ago led to the discovery of pulsars – rapidly spinning dense stellar corpses that appear to pulse at Earth (Ref. 29).
Astronomer Jocelyn Bell made the chance discovery using a vast radio telescope in Cambridge, England. Although it was built to measure the random brightness flickers of a different category of celestial objects called quasars, the 4.5-acre telescope produced unexpected markings on Bell’s paper data recorder every 1.33730 seconds. The pen traces representing radio brightness revealed an unusual phenomenon.
“The pulses were so regular, so much like a ticking clock, that Bell and her supervisor Anthony Hewish couldn’t believe it was a natural phenomenon,” said Zaven Arzoumanian of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “Once they found a second, third and fourth they started to think differently.”
The unusual stellar objects had been previously predicted but never observed. Today, scientists know of over 2,000 pulsars. These rotating “lighthouse” neutron stars begin their lives as stars between about seven and 20 times the mass of our sun. Some are found to spin hundreds of times per second, faster than the blades of a household blender, and they possess enormously strong magnetic fields.
Figure 2: Most known neutron stars are observed as pulsars, emitting narrow, sweeping beams of radiation. They squeeze up to two solar masses into a city-size volume, crushing matter to the highest possible stable densities. To explore these exotic states of matter, NICER measures X-ray emissions across the surfaces of neutron stars as they spin, ultimately confronting the predictions of nuclear physics theory (image credit: NASA/GSFC)
Technology advances in the past half-century allowed scientists to study these compact stellar objects from space using different wavelengths of light, especially those much more energetic than the radio waves received by the Cambridge telescope. Several current NASA missions continue to study these natural beacons.
NICER (Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer) is the first NASA mission dedicated to studying pulsars. In a nod to the anniversary of Bell’s discovery, NICER observed the famous first pulsar, known today as PSR B1919+21.
The “stuff” of pulsars is a collection of particles familiar to scientists from over a century of laboratory studies on Earth – neutrons, protons, electrons, and perhaps even their own constituents, called quarks. However, under such extreme conditions of pressure and density, their behavior and interactions aren’t well understood. New, precise measurements, especially of the sizes and masses of pulsars are needed to pin down theories.
“Many nuclear-physics models have been developed to explain how the make-up of neutron stars, based on available data and the constraints they provide,” said Goddard’s Keith Gendreau, the principal investigator for NICER. “NICER’s sensitivity, X-ray energy resolution and time resolution will improve these by more precisely measuring their radii, to an order of magnitude improvement over the state of the art today.”
Science of neutron star investigations:
Constraining the presence or absence of exotic phases within neutron star cores (the question mark in Figure 1) is key to understanding the basic physics of dense matter as well as the astrophysics of late stellar and binary evolution, which govern the relative abundances of neutron stars and black holes. Whatever the nature of matter beyond nuclear density, it exists in abundance: millions of neutron stars inhabit the Galaxy. Usually observed as pulsars, the number of known neutron stars has expanded dramatically in recent years, especially as the Fermi γ-ray space telescope has proven to be a remarkable engine of pulsar discovery.
A compact star’s interior structure is captured, in a global sense, by the EOS (Equation of State), a distinct hypothesis of the nature of dense matter. The EOS relates density to pressure within a star; equivalently, for a given theory of gravity, it relates the star’s mass M to its radius R. Most EOSs predict that R will shrink as M grows and the self-gravitational force increases, but different assumptions about interior composition produce differences in the detailed mass-radius relation. Thus, measurements of M and R probe dense matter.
Nuclear theory predicts distinct mass-radius relationships — the S-shaped curves in Figure 3 — for many proposed models of particle composition and interaction in cold, dense matter. NICER will confront these predictions with measurements, isolating those models that are consistent with observed neutron stars and ruling out large numbers of alternatives. Graphically, NICER’s mass and radius measurements will define “allowed” regions in the M-R plane, as shown for PSR J0437–4715 in Figure 3. EOS curves that do not pass through every allowed region must be ruled out, while the remaining models are viable.
Figure 3: Mass and radius measurements probe the nature of dense matter by testing proposed equations of state (EOSs; representative labeled curves). Current weak radius bounds allow virtually all EOSs. NICER will improve radius measurements by an order of magnitude, isolating viable models of dense matter (image credit: NASA, NICER Team)
In pursuit of its key science objective, NICER exploits a well-founded and accessible approach to mass and radius constraints: analysis of X-ray flux modulations due to rotating hot spots on the surface of a neutron star. NICER enables such lightcurve analysis at a level that achieves the standard set by nuclear theory for distinguishing between proposed EOS models: ±5% uncertainty on radius measurements. To realize such precision, large numbers of photons, typically 105–6, must be collected.
Rotating hot spots are seen from both rotation- and accretion-powered pulsars. Lightcurve analysis to constrain neutron star properties has been demonstrated in both cases — for steady thermal X-ray pulsations from nearby MSPs (Millisecond Pulsars), and for transient accretion-powered pulsations and burst oscillations from low-mass X-ray binaries — but with broad statistical and, in the case of the accreting systems, systematic uncertainties. NICER delivers data suited to both investigations; its prime focus, however, is on the non-accreting MSPs, which are unaffected by the complexities of accretion flows. Rotation-powered MSPs are ideal for this approach: they appear frequently in binary systems, offering independent mass measurements, their radiative properties are well described by hydrogen atmosphere models, and they are always “on” with lightcurves stable in time, producing steady and predictable gains in SNR with increasing exposure.
Figure 4: Lightcurve modeling constrains the compactness (M/R) and viewing geometry of a non-accreting millisecond pulsar through the depth of modulation and harmonic content of emission from rotating hot-spots, thanks to gravitational light-bending (image credit: NASA, NICER Team)
Legend to Figure 4: Science measurements reveal the stellar structure through lightcurve modeling, long-term timing, and pulsation searches. A distant observer sees X-ray intensity grow and fall as hot-spots on a neutron star surface spin through the line of sight. The far-side spot becomes more visible for smaller stars through gravitational light-bending, which depends on M/R; thus, depth of modulation constrains compactness.
Figure 5: Right: Two sets of simulated NICER lightcurves, for stellar radii differing by ±5%, show measurable differences in several energy bands for a 1 Msec exposure: 4–6σ differences per phase bin pinpoint the star's radius (image credit: NASA, NICER Team)
Using XMM-Newton data for PSR J0437–4715, Bogdanov et al. (2007) established the viability of constraining the neutron star EOS through lightcurve analysis. Their model successfully reproduces both the pulsar’s lightcurve and its phase-averaged spectrum. Their result (Figure 3), however, encompasses virtually all EOS families, including SQM (Strange Quark Matter), condensate (the region between the PAL6 and FSU curves), and soft and stiff nucleonic models (black curves). Because of limitations in XMM’s onboard timekeeping, these radius constraints cannot be improved upon with additional XMM observations by more than a factor of two, and there is no possibility of attaining ±5% (3σ) uncertainty in R, which is NICER’s goal and an improvement by a factor of more than 12. Simulations show that NICER achieves this goal for PSR J0437–4715 with an accumulated 1 Msec exposure.
To infer neutron star masses, NICER offers collecting area and photon time-tagging precision sufficient for measurement in X-rays (for the first time) of the general-relativistic Shapiro delay in binary systems. For orbits viewed edge-on, this retardation of a pulsar signal traversing the gravitational well of its companion is the most accessible of the well-known “post-Keplerian” timing effects traditionally accessible only to radio observations. Delays of tens of µs are measurable whenever timing precisions of a few µs are achieved on timescales small compared to the orbital period. For orbital periods longer than a few days, in systems containing either rotation- or accretion-powered MSPs, NICER’s pulse TOA (Time-Of-Arrival) measurements will yield masses through the Shapiro delay.
Additional core NICER science investigations will include:
• Searches for coherent pulsations and QPOs (Quasi-Periodic Oscillations) in steady and transient systems. Discovery of a neutron star’s rotation rate, its most consequential observable property, is important for eventual lightcurve analysis, characterization of orbits and component masses in binaries, and for understanding the origins of kHz QPOs, which probe the extreme neutron star environment. NICER also offers the prospect of a new capability to perform asteroseismology measurements of neutron stars.
• Definitive determination of the intrinsic clock stabilities of MSPs (Millisecond Pulsars), free of the interstellar propagation effects that plague radio timing observations.
• Cooling histories of young neutron stars. Existing temperature measurements suffer from poor statistics, blending together cooling-surface emission, heated polar caps, and nonthermal magnetospheric emission. NICER will disentangle the various components through phase-resolved spectroscopy, including constraining the origins of absorption features near 1 keV seen in some objects.
• Characterization of spin variations and outbursts associated with “glitches” in normal pulsars and magnetars.
• Determining radiation patterns, spectra, and relative phases of nonthermal emissions across wavelength bands.
Figure 6: NICER capabilities and measurement products are highly complementary to those of other X-ray, radio, and γ-ray facilities for neutron star studies. Interplay between them amplifies the scientific returns from all (image credit: NASA, NICER Team)
The NICER Guest Investigator/Observer program:
The NICER mission includes a proposed GI/O (Guest Investigator/Observer) program. Modeled after the Swift mission’s GO program, the first NICER AO (Announcement of Opportunity) will solicit GI proposals for concurrent observations of NICER’s neutron star targets in the radio, optical, and γ-ray bands (Figure 7), and also to support theoretical work relevant to NICER investigations. The first GI period will overlap with the first year of the mission, during which the NICER observing program will be dedicated to fulfilling its core neutron-star science investigation. To facilitate planning and coordination of complementary observing efforts, NICER target schedules will be published well in advance. GI/O proposals received within this and subsequent AOs will be selected via a peer-review process.
The second AO will solicit GO proposals, for observing time using NICER to target objects not part of the core NICER science agenda, concurrently with baseline science observations during a 12-month period. The RXTE (Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer), recently decommissioned after 16 years of service, revolutionized X-ray timing astrophysics, discovering many new phenomena and resulting in more than 2,500 publications; NICER will provide a natural extension of much RXTE science, while similarly opening a new discovery window in soft X-rays. With the highest time resolution of any astronomy instrument flown, 30 times the sensitivity of RXTE to background-dominated sources, and a factor of 8 improvement in energy resolution, NICER will enable new observing strategies and science for a wide variety of sources, from active stars to clusters of galaxies. Unique science outcomes could include establishing the existence of intermediate mass black holes through characterization of QPOs (Quasi-Periodic Oscillations) in ULXs (Ultraluminous X-ray sources); unification of stellar-mass and supermassive black holes via measurement of break timescales in AGN power-spectra; testing models of polar accretion onto magnetic white dwarfs in binary systems; detecting photon bubble oscillations driven by high-rate accretion; probing galaxy evolution in clusters with Fe line measurements in the intracluster medium out to redshifts z ~ 1 or more; and others.
• June 8, 2016: The NICER instrument arrived at NASA/KSC, Cape Canaveral, FL on June 8, 2016. The forthcoming ISS (International Space Station) payload was transported from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, aboard a climate-controlled, air-suspension truck. 8)
- “Thanks to a terrific development team, we’re pleased to have delivered NICER two weeks ahead of our original schedule crafted almost four years ago,” said Keith Gendreau, NICER’s principal investigator at Goddard. “We’re looking forward to launching on a SpaceX rocket and integrating with the ISS. From this platform, NICER will provide both unique insights into neutron star physics and validation of a technology that may one day lead humanity into deep space.”
Figure 8: A view of the NICER XTI (X-ray Timing Instrument) without its protective blanketing shows a collection of 56 close-packed sunshades-the white and black cylinders in the foreground-that protect the X-ray optics (not visible here), as well as some of the 56 X-ray detector enclosures, on the gold-colored plate, onto which X-rays from the sky are focused (image credit: NASA, Keith Gendreau)
• Dec. 14, 2015: NICER has cleared another major milestone review, and the nearly-complete flight payload is poised to begin environmental (electromagnetic, vibration, thermal, etc.) testing. Delivery to NASA's Kennedy Space Center is anticipated in June 2016. 9)
• May 12, 2015: NASA mission NICER/SEXTANT, that embodies the virtues of faster, less expensive access to space, has sailed past all major development milestones and is scheduled to be delivered to Cape Canaveral on time for its launch in late 2016. 10)
Figure 9: Technicians assemble a new 7 m high test facility, equipped with a 1 m parabolic optical mirror, which will be used to align NICER/SEXTANT’s 56 optics and detectors (image credit: NASA)
• In September 2014, NICER/SEXTANT successfully passed the CDR (Critical Design Review), after completing the design. While completing the XTI design, a number of ETUs (Engineering Test Units) were developed and subjected to preliminary environmental testing, e.g., XRC (X-ray Concentrator), detector packaging.
• NICER’s KDP-C (Key Decision Point-C) review was held in late February 2014, and shortly there after, NICER was confirmed to proceed to Phase C, Final Design and Fabrication.
• The PDR (Preliminary Design Review) of NICER/SEXTANT was held in December 2013 at the end of Phase B, Preliminary Design and Technology Completion.
• The NICER mission was formally selected for Formulation in April 2013 after completing Phase A, Concept and Technology Development and holding a very successful Phase A site visit in January 2013 conducted by a standing review board.
Launch: The NICER/SEXTANT instrument was launched to the ISS on June 3, 2017 on the SpaceX CRS-11 (Commercial Resupply Services-11) flight. The NICER/SEXTANT assembly will be hosted as an externally attached payload on the ISS via the ELC (ExPRESS Logistics Carrier). 11) 12)
Further external payloads on this flight were:
• MUSES (Multiple User System for Earth Sensing) by TBE (Teledyne Brown Engineering)
• ROSA (Roll Our Solar Array)
Orbit of ISS: Near-circular orbit, altitude of ~ 400 km, inclination = 51.6º, period = 92.6 minutes.
NICER/SEXTANT installation: Once berthed, NICER is installed robotically via the SSRMS (Space Station Remote Manipulator System) and the SPDM (Special Purpose Dexterous Manipulator), referred to as Dextre. During this process, NICER must be able to survive for at least 6 hours without power, when provided sufficient notice to allow for pre-heating of the payload. Dextre will transfer NICER to its operational location, Site 7 on ELC-2 (EXPRESS Logistics Carrier-2), which is zenith, outboard, and ram on ISS. Once the payload FRAM (Flight Releasable Attachment Mechanism ) is mated to the ELC 2’s FRAM and powered on, engineering assessment will begin. Assessment will continue through deployment and science calibration of the instrument. Once commissioned, primary mission operation will commence.
• April 8, 2021: A global science collaboration using data from NASA’s Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) telescope on the International Space Station has discovered X-ray surges accompanying radio bursts from the pulsar in the Crab Nebula. The finding shows that these bursts, called giant radio pulses, release far more energy than previously suspected. 13)
Figure 11: Observations from NASA’s Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) show X-ray boosts linked in the Crab pulsar's random giant radio pulses. Watch to learn more (video credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center)
- A pulsar is a type of rapidly spinning neutron star, the crushed, city-sized core of a star that exploded as a supernova. A young, isolated neutron star can spin dozens of times each second, and its whirling magnetic field powers beams of radio waves, visible light, X-rays, and gamma rays. If these beams sweep past Earth, astronomers observe clock-like pulses of emission and classify the object as a pulsar.
- “Out of more than 2,800 pulsars cataloged, the Crab pulsar is one of only a few that emit giant radio pulses, which occur sporadically and can be hundreds to thousands of times brighter than the regular pulses,” said lead scientist Teruaki Enoto at the RIKEN Cluster for Pioneering Research in Wako, Saitama prefecture, Japan. “After decades of observations, only the Crab has been shown to enhance its giant radio pulses with emission from other parts of the spectrum.”
- The new study, which will appear in the April 9 edition of Science and is now available online, analyzed the largest amount of simultaneous X-ray and radio data ever collected from a pulsar. It extends the observed energy range associated with this enhancement phenomenon by thousands of times.
- Located about 6,500 light-years away in the constellation Taurus, the Crab Nebula and its pulsar formed in a supernova whose light reached Earth in July 1054. The neutron star spins 30 times each second, and at X-ray and radio wavelengths it is among the brightest pulsars in the sky.
- Between August 2017 and August 2019, Enoto and his colleagues used NICER to repeatedly observe the Crab pulsar in X-rays with energies up to 10,000 electron volts, or thousands of times that of visible light. While NICER was watching, the team also studied the object using at least one of two ground-based radio telescopes in Japan – the 34-meter dish at the Kashima Space Technology Center and the 64-meter dish at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Usuda Deep Space Center, both operating at a frequency of 2 gigahertz.
Figure 12: Between 2017 and 2019, NASA’s Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) and radio telescopes in Japan studied the Crab pulsar at the same time. In this visualization, which represents just 13 minutes of NICER observations, millions of X-rays are plotted relative to the pulsar’s rotational phase, which is centered on the strongest radio emission. For clarity, two full rotations are shown. As the pulsar beams sweep across our line of sight, they produce two peaks for each rotation, with the brighter one associated with greater numbers of giant radio pulses. For the first time, NICER data show a slight increase in X-ray emission associated with these events (image credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Enoto et al. 2021)
- The combined dataset effectively gave the researchers nearly a day and a half of simultaneous X-ray and radio coverage. All told, they captured activity across 3.7 million pulsar rotations and netted some 26,000 giant radio pulses.
- The combined dataset effectively gave the researchers nearly a day and a half of simultaneous X-ray and radio coverage. All told, they captured activity across 3.7 million pulsar rotations and netted some 26,000 giant radio pulses.
- NICER records the arrival time of every X-ray it detects to within 100 nanoseconds, but the telescope’s timing precision isn’t its only advantage for this study.
- “NICER’s capacity for observing bright X-ray sources is nearly four times greater than the combined brightness of both the pulsar and its nebula,” said Zaven Arzoumanian, the project’s science lead at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “So these observations were largely unaffected by pileup – where a detector counts two or more X-rays as a single event – and other issues that have complicated earlier analyses.”
- Enoto‘s team combined all of the X-ray data that coincided with giant radio pulses, revealing an X-ray boost of about 4% that occurred in synch with them. It’s remarkably similar to the 3% rise in visible light also associated with the phenomenon, discovered in 2003. Compared to the brightness difference between the Crab’s regular and giant pulses, these changes are remarkably small and provide a challenge for theoretical models to explain.
- The enhancements suggest that giant pulses are a manifestation of underlying processes that produce emission spanning the electromagnetic spectrum, from radio to X-rays. And because X-rays pack millions of times the punch of radio waves, even a modest increase represents a large energy contribution. The researchers conclude that the total emitted energy associated with a giant pulse is dozens to hundreds of times higher than previously estimated from the radio and optical data alone.
- “We still don’t understand how or where pulsars produce their complex and wide-ranging emission, and it’s gratifying to have contributed another piece to the multiwavelength puzzle of these fascinating objects,” Enoto said.
Figure 13: The Crab Nebula, the six-light-year-wide expanding cloud of debris from a supernova explosion, hosts a neutron star spinning 30 times a second that is among the brightest pulsars in the sky at X-ray and radio wavelengths. This composite of Hubble Space Telescope images reveals different gases expelled in the explosion: blue reveals neutral oxygen, green shows singly ionized sulfur, and red indicates doubly ionized oxygen [image credits: NASA, ESA, J. Hester and A. Loll (Arizona State University)]
• July 23, 2020: NICER Finds a Black Hole in MAXI J1727-203. Low-mass X-ray binaries (LMXBs) are orbiting systems that emit X-rays in which one of the components is a black hole (BH) or a neutron star (NS) and the other component is a low-mass star. MAXI J1727-203 is an LMXB discovered by JAXA's ISS payload MAXI in June 2018, at the start of a roughly 2-month-long outburst. We carried out the first study of the spectral and timing properties of MAXI J1727-203 using NICER data. Thanks to NICER's scheduling agility that enabled excellent sampling in time, we were able to study the evolution of the accretion disc across the outburst. We found that the disc temperature reached a maximum of ~0.45 keV (or approximately 5 million degrees Kelvin), and then it cooled down to ~0.1 keV, at which point NICER could no longer detect it. Earlier X-ray observatories could not detect the disc during most of the outburst given these relatively low temperatures. With NICER's low-energy response and timing capability, we were also able to study the characteristics of the sub-second variability in X-ray emission down to photon energies as low as 0.3 keV. Taken together, the results enabled us to conclude that the compact object in the system is a black hole. This work, led by graduate student K. Alabarta of Southampton Univ. in the UK, was accepted this week for peer-reviewed publication in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. 14)
Figure 14: Top panel: evolution of the disc temperature. Bottom panel: evolution of the X-ray variability (in units of fractional rms amplitude) with energy. Colors represent different intervals over the outburst (image credit: NASA/GSFC)
• On 11 July, 2020, NICER responded to a Target of Opportunity (TOO) request to investigate the optical and X-ray transient AT2020ocn, which was discovered by the Zwicky Transient Facility (Palomar Observatory, San Diego, CA) on April 29, 2020. This transient was a sudden brightening of the core of the early-type galaxy, SDSS J135353.80+535949.7, which lies at a redshift of 0.07, about 300 million parsecs from Earth. 15)
- Observations on July 10 with the X-ray telescope on NASA's Swift observatory showed substantial brightening in X-rays, which suggests that AT2020ocn was a likely Tidal Disruption Event (TDE), the total shredding of a star which wandered too close to the supermassive balck hole at the center of the galaxy.
- NICER has been measuring the X-ray intensity of AT2020ocn as a function of time, as shown in the figure below. Time-resolved X-ray spectroscopy by NICER during the rising part of the X-ray emission produced by the TDE shows a surprisingly rapid change in the accretion disk formed around the black hole by the stellar debris. The first NICER observations were reported by Pasham et al. in an Astronomer's Telegram #13864. NICER observations are continuing.
Figure 15: The measured brightness of AT2020ocn as a function of time for X-rays in the energy range 350-1300 eV (image credit: NASA/GSFC)
• December 12, 2019: Astrophysicists are redrawing the textbook image of pulsars, the dense, whirling remains of exploded stars, thanks to NASA’s Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER), an X-ray telescope aboard the International Space Station. Using NICER data, scientists have obtained the first precise and dependable measurements of both a pulsar’s size and its mass, as well as the first-ever map of hot spots on its surface. 16)
- The pulsar in question, J0030+0451 (J0030 for short), lies in an isolated region of space 1,100 light-years away in the constellation Pisces. While measuring the pulsar's heft and proportions, NICER revealed that the shapes and locations of million-degree “hot spots” on the pulsar’s surface are much stranger than generally thought.
- “From its perch on the space station, NICER is revolutionizing our understanding of pulsars,” said Paul Hertz, astrophysics division director at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “Pulsars were discovered more than 50 years ago as beacons of stars that have collapsed into dense cores, behaving unlike anything we see on Earth. With NICER we can probe the nature of these dense remnants in ways that seemed impossible until now.”
- A series of papers analyzing NICER’s observations of J0030 appears in a focus issue of The Astrophysical Journal Letters and is now available online.
Figure 16: Watch how NASA’s Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) has expanded our understanding of pulsars, the dense, spinning corpses of exploded stars. Pulsar J0030+0451, located 1,100 light-years away in the constellation Pisces, now has the most precise and reliable size measurements of any pulsar to date. The shapes and locations of its hot spots challenge textbook depictions of these incredible objects (video credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center)
- When a massive star dies, it runs out of fuel, collapses under its own weight and explodes as a supernova. These stellar deaths can leave behind neutron stars, which pack more mass than our Sun into a sphere roughly as wide as the island of Manhattan is long. Pulsars, which are one class of neutron star, spin up to hundreds of times each second and sweep beams of energy toward us with every rotation. J0030 revolves 205 times per second.
- For decades, scientists have been trying to figure out exactly how pulsars work. In the simplest model, a pulsar has a powerful magnetic field shaped much like a household bar magnet. The field is so strong it rips particles from the pulsar’s surface and accelerates them. Some particles follow the magnetic field and strike the opposite side, heating the surface and creating hot spots at the magnetic poles. The whole pulsar glows faintly in X-rays, but the hot spots are brighter. As the object spins, these spots sweep in and out of view like the beams of a lighthouse, producing extremely regular variations in the object’s X-ray brightness. But the new NICER studies of J0030 show pulsars aren’t so simple.
- Using NICER observations from July 2017 to December 2018, two groups of scientists mapped J0030’s hot spots using independent methods and converged on similar results for its mass and size. A team led by Thomas Riley, a doctoral student in computational astrophysics, and his supervisor Anna Watts, a professor of astrophysics at the University of Amsterdam, determined the pulsar is around 1.3 times the Sun’s mass and 15.8 miles (25.4 kilometers) across. Cole Miller, an astronomy professor at the University of Maryland (UMD) who led the second team, found J0030 is about 1.4 times the Sun’s mass and slightly larger, about 16.2 miles (26 kilometers) wide.
- “When we first started working on J0030, our understanding of how to simulate pulsars was incomplete, and it still is,” Riley said. “But thanks to NICER’s detailed data, open-source tools, high-performance computers and great teamwork, we now have a framework for developing more realistic models of these objects.”
Figure 17: Simulation of a possible quadrupole magnetic field configuration for a pulsar with hot spots in only the southern hemisphere (image credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center)
- A pulsar is so dense its gravity warps nearby space-time — the “fabric” of the universe as described by Einstein’s general theory of relativity — in much the same way as a bowling ball on a trampoline stretches the surface. Space-time is so distorted that light from the side of the pulsar facing away from us is “bent” and redirected into our view. This makes the star look bigger than it is. The effect also means the hot spots may never completely disappear as they rotate to the far side of the star. NICER measures the arrival of each X-ray from a pulsar to better than a hundred nanoseconds, a precision about 20 times greater than previously available, so scientists can take advantage of this effect for the first time.
- “NICER’s unparalleled X-ray measurements allowed us to make the most precise and reliable calculations of a pulsar’s size to date, with an uncertainty of less than 10%,” Miller said. “The whole NICER team has made an important contribution to fundamental physics that is impossible to probe in terrestrial laboratories.”
- Our view from Earth looks onto J0030’s northern hemisphere. When the teams mapped the shapes and locations of J0030’s spots, they expected to find one there based on the textbook image of pulsars, but didn’t. Instead, the researchers identified up to three hot “spots,” all in the southern hemisphere.
- Riley and his colleagues ran rounds of simulations using overlapping circles of different sizes and temperatures to recreate the X-ray signals. Performing their analysis on the Dutch national supercomputer Cartesius took less than a month — but would have required around 10 years on a modern desktop computer. Their solution identifies two hot spots, one small and circular and the other long and crescent-shaped.
- Miller’s group performed similar simulations, but with ovals of different sizes and temperatures, on UMD’s Deepthought2 supercomputer. They found two possible and equally likely spot configurations. One has two ovals that closely match the pattern found by Riley’s team. The second solution adds a third, cooler spot slightly askew of the pulsar’s south rotational pole.
- Previous theoretical predictions suggested that hot spot locations and shapes could vary, but the J0030 studies are the first to map these surface features. Scientists are still trying to determine why J0030’s spots are arranged and shaped as they are, but for now it’s clear that pulsar magnetic fields are more complicated than the traditional two-pole model.
- NICER’s main science goal is to precisely determine the masses and sizes of several pulsars. With this information scientists will finally be able to decipher the state of matter in the cores of neutron stars, matter crushed by tremendous pressures and densities that cannot be replicated on Earth.
- “It’s remarkable, and also very reassuring, that the two teams achieved such similar sizes, masses and hot spot patterns for J0030 using different modeling approaches,” said Zaven Arzoumanian, NICER science lead at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “It tells us NICER is on the right path to help us answer an enduring question in astrophysics: What form does matter take in the ultra-dense cores of neutron stars?”
- NICER is an Astrophysics Mission of Opportunity within NASA's Explorers program, which provides frequent flight opportunities for world-class scientific investigations from space utilizing innovative, streamlined and efficient management approaches within the heliophysics and astrophysics science areas. NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate supports the SEXTANT component of the mission, demonstrating pulsar-based spacecraft navigation.
• February 19, 2019: A new experimental type of deep space communications technology is scheduled to be demonstrated on the International Space Station this spring. 17)
- Currently, NASA relies on radio waves to send information between spacecraft and Earth. Emerging laser communications technology offers higher data rates that let spacecraft transmit more data at a time. This demonstration involves XCOM (X-ray communications), which offers even more advantages.
Figure 18: This image shows the MXS (Modulated X-ray Source), a key component in NASA’s first-ever demonstration of X-ray communication in space (image credit: NASA/W. Hrybyk)
- X-rays have much shorter wavelengths than both infrared and radio. This means that, in principle, XCOM can send more data for the same amount of transmission power. The X-rays can broadcast in tighter beams, thus using less energy when communicating over vast distances.
- If successful, the experiment could increase interest in the communications technology, which could permit more efficient gigabits-per-second data rates for deep space missions. Gigabits per second is a data transfer rate equivalent to one billion bits, or simple binary units, per second. These extremely high-speed rates of data transfer are not currently common, but new research projects have pushed computing capability toward this range for some technologies.
- “We’ve waited a long time to demonstrate this capability,” said Jason Mitchell, an engineer at NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who helped develop the technology demonstration, which relies on a device called the MXS (Modulated X-ray Source).
- “For some missions, XCOM may be an enabling technology due to the extreme distances where they must operate,” Mitchell said.
- Perhaps more dramatically, at least as far as human spaceflight is concerned, X-rays can pierce the hot plasma sheath that builds up as spacecraft hurdle through Earth’s atmosphere at hypersonic speeds. The plasma acts as a shield, cutting off radio frequency communications with anything outside the vehicle for several seconds — a nail-biting period of time dramatically portrayed in the movie, Apollo 13. No one has ever used X-rays in a communications system, though, so other applications not yet conceived could emerge, Mitchell said.
- “Our goal for the immediate future is finding interested partners to help further develop this technology,” Mitchell said.
Encoding Digital Bits
- To demonstrate this new communications technology, NASA will use the MXS to generate rapid-fire X-ray pulses. Operated by another Goddard-developed computing and navigation technology called NavCube, MXS will turn on and off many times per second while encoding digital bits for transmission.
- From the experimental payload, the MXS device will then send the encoded data via the modulated X-rays to detectors on the NICER (Neutron-star Interior Composition Explorer), which is located 165 feet away — about the width of a football field — on the space station. In this way, NICER becomes the receiver of a one-way X-ray signal.
- Although the first XCOM test will involve the transmission of GPS-like signals, Mitchell said the team may attempt to transmit something more complicated after the initial attempt.
- “It’s important is that we transmit a known code we can identify to make sure NICER receives the signal precisely the way we sent it,” Mitchell said.
- Although primarily built to gather data about the densest objects in the universe — neutron stars and their pulsating next-of-kin, known as pulsars — NICER was also designed to demonstrate advanced technology. In addition to the XCOM demonstration, the mission proved the effectiveness of X-ray navigation in space, showing in 2017 that pulsars could be used as timing sources for navigational purposes.
- During that two-day demonstration, which the NICER team carried out with an experiment called SEXTANT (Station Explorer for X-ray Timing and Navigation Technology), the mission gathered 78 measurements from four millisecond pulsars. The team fed that data into onboard algorithms to autonomously stitch together a navigational solution that revealed the location of NICER in its orbit around Earth as a space station payload. Within eight hours of starting the experiment, the system converged on a location within the targeted 6.2 miles and remained well below that threshold for the rest of the experiment.
- NICER’s ability to carry out science and demonstrate emerging, revolutionary technologies has captured the attention of those planning NASA’s next era of human spaceflight. Missions that perform multiple functions are now considered a model, said Jake Bleacher, lead exploration scientist responsible for identifying areas where Goddard scientists can support human exploration of the Moon and Mars.
Figure 19: NASA’s first-ever demonstration of X-ray communication will occur on the International Space Station. This image shows the locations of the Modulated X-ray Source and the NICER (Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer), which are critical to the demonstration (image credit: NASA)
- The idea to use X-rays to communicate and navigate originated more than a decade ago when NICER Principal Investigator Keith Gendreau began work on enabling technologies for a proposed black hole imager aimed at directly imaging the event horizon of a supermassive black hole or the point of no return where nothing — neither particles nor photons — can escape.
- The idea was to establish a constellation of precisely aligned spacecraft that would in essence create an X-ray interferometer, an instrument used to measure displacements in objects. He conceived the idea of using X-ray sources as beacons to enable highly precise relative navigation. Using research and development funding, he developed the MXS.
- Gendreau then reasoned that if he could modulate X-rays through a modulator, he could also communicate, thus giving birth to the NICER three-in-one mission concept.
- The XCOM demonstration is managed by NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation program within the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. NICER is an Astrophysics Mission of Opportunity within the Explorers program. The Space Technology Mission Directorate supports the SEXTANT component of the mission, demonstrating pulsar-based spacecraft navigation.
• January 30, 2019: Scientists have charted the environment surrounding a stellar-mass black hole that is 10 times the mass of the Sun using NASA’s Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) payload aboard the International Space Station. NICER detected X-ray light from the recently discovered black hole, called MAXI J1820+070 (J1820 for short), as it consumed material from a companion star. Waves of X-rays formed “light echoes” that reflected off the swirling gas near the black hole and revealed changes in the environment’s size and shape. 18)
Figure 20: In this illustration of a newly discovered black hole named MAXI J1820+070, a black hole pulls material off a neighboring star and into an accretion disk. Above the disk is a region of subatomic particles called the corona (image credit: Aurore Simonnet and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center)
- “NICER has allowed us to measure light echoes closer to a stellar-mass black hole than ever before,” said Erin Kara, an astrophysicist at the University of Maryland, College Park and NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who presented the findings at the 233rd American Astronomical Society meeting in Seattle. “Previously, these light echoes off the inner accretion disk were only seen in supermassive black holes, which are millions to billions of solar masses and undergo changes slowly. Stellar black holes like J1820 have much lower masses and evolve much faster, so we can see changes play out on human time scales.”
Figure 21: Watch how X-ray echoes, mapped by NASA’s Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) revealed changes to the corona of black hole MAXI J1820+070 (image credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center)
- J1820 is located about 10,000 light-years away toward the constellation Leo. The companion star in the system was identified in a survey by ESA’s (European Space Agency) Gaia mission, which allowed researchers to estimate its distance. Astronomers were unaware of the black hole’s presence until March 11, 2018, when an outburst was spotted by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s Monitor of All-sky X-ray Image (MAXI), also aboard the space station. J1820 went from a totally unknown black hole to one of the brightest sources in the X-ray sky over a few days. NICER moved quickly to capture this dramatic transition and continues to follow the fading tail of the eruption.
- “NICER was designed to be sensitive enough to study faint, incredibly dense objects called neutron stars,” said Sven Arzoumanian, the NICER science lead at Goddard and a co-author of the paper. “We’re pleased at how useful it’s also proven in studying these very X-ray-bright stellar-mass black holes.” 19)
- A black hole can siphon gas from a nearby companion star into a ring of material called an accretion disk. Gravitational and magnetic forces heat the disk to millions of degrees, making it hot enough to produce X-rays at the inner parts of the disk, near the black hole. Outbursts occur when an instability in the disk causes a flood of gas to move inward, toward the black hole, like an avalanche. The causes of disk instabilities are poorly understood.
- Above the disk is the corona, a region of subatomic particles around 1 billion degrees Celsius (1.8 billion degrees Fahrenheit) that glows in higher-energy X-rays. Many mysteries remain about the origin and evolution of the corona. Some theories suggest the structure could represent an early form of the high-speed particle jets these types of systems often emit.
- Astrophysicists want to better understand how the inner edge of the accretion disk and the corona above it change in size and shape as a black hole accretes material from its companion star. If they can understand how and why these changes occur in stellar-mass black holes over a period of weeks, scientists could shed light on how supermassive black holes evolve over millions of years and how they affect the galaxies in which they reside.
- One method used to chart those changes is called X-ray reverberation mapping, which uses X-ray reflections in much the same way sonar uses sound waves to map undersea terrain. Some X-rays from the corona travel straight toward us, while others light up the disk and reflect back at different energies and angles.
- X-ray reverberation mapping of supermassive black holes has shown that the inner edge of the accretion disk is very close to the event horizon, the point of no return. The corona is also compact, lying closer to the black hole rather than over much of the accretion disk. Previous observations of X-ray echoes from stellar black holes, however, suggested the inner edge of the accretion disk could be quite distant, up to hundreds of times the size of the event horizon. The stellar-mass J1820, however, behaved more like its supermassive cousins.
- As they examined NICER’s observations of J1820, Kara’s team saw a decrease in the delay, or lag time, between the initial flare of X-rays coming directly from the corona and the flare’s echo off the disk, indicating that the X-rays traveled shorter and shorter distances before they were reflected. From 10,000 light-years away, they estimated that the corona contracted vertically from roughly 100 to 10 miles — that’s like seeing something the size of a blueberry shrink to something the size of a poppy seed at the distance of Pluto.
- “This is the first time that we’ve seen this kind of evidence that it’s the corona shrinking during this particular phase of outburst evolution,” said co-author Jack Steiner, an astrophysicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research in Cambridge. “The corona is still pretty mysterious, and we still have a loose understanding of what it is. But we now have evidence that the thing that’s evolving in the system is the structure of the corona itself.”
- To confirm the decreased lag time was due to a change in the corona and not the disk, the researchers used a signal called the iron K line created when X-rays from the corona collide with iron atoms in the disk, causing them to fluoresce. Time runs slower in stronger gravitational fields and at higher velocities, as stated in Einstein’s theory of relativity. When the iron atoms closest to the black hole are bombarded by light from the core of the corona, the X-ray wavelengths they emit get stretched because time is moving slower for them than for the observer (in this case, NICER).
- Kara’s team discovered that J1820’s stretched iron K line remained constant, which means the inner edge of the disk remained close to the black hole — similar to a supermassive black hole. If the decreased lag time was caused by the inner edge of the disk moving even further inward, then the iron K line would have stretched even more.
- These observations give scientists new insights into how material funnels in to the black hole and how energy is released in this process.
- “NICER’s observations of J1820 have taught us something new about stellar-mass black holes and about how we might use them as analogs for studying supermassive black holes and their effects on galaxy formation,” said co-author Philip Uttley, an astrophysicist at the University of Amsterdam. “We’ve seen four similar events in NICER’s first year, and it’s remarkable. It feels like we’re on the edge of a huge breakthrough in X-ray astronomy.”
• January 9, 2019: On 11 March 2018, an instrument aboard the International Space Station detected an enormous explosion of X-ray light that grew to be six times as bright as the Crab Nebula, nearly 10,000 light years away from Earth. Scientists determined the source was a black hole caught in the midst of an outburst — an extreme phase in which a black hole can spew brilliant bursts of X-ray energy as it devours an avalanche of gas and dust from a nearby star. 20)
- Now astronomers from MIT and elsewhere have detected “echoes” within this burst of X-ray emissions, that they believe could be a clue to how black holes evolve during an outburst. In a study published today in the journal Nature, the team reports evidence that as the black hole consumes enormous amounts of stellar material, its corona — the halo of highly-energized electrons that surrounds a black hole — significantly shrinks, from an initial expanse of about 100 km (about the width of Massachusetts) to a mere 10 km, in just over a month. 21)
- The findings are the first evidence that the corona shrinks as a black hole feeds, or accretes. The results also suggest that it is the corona that drives a black hole’s evolution during the most extreme phase of its outburst.
- “This is the first time that we’ve seen this kind of evidence that it’s the corona shrinking during this particular phase of outburst evolution,” says Jack Steiner, a research scientist in MIT’s Kavli Institute for Astrophysics and Space Research. “The corona is still pretty mysterious, and we still have a loose understanding of what it is. But we now have evidence that the thing that’s evolving in the system is the structure of the corona itself.”
Figure 22: Artist's impression of an inner accretion flow and a jet from a supermassive black hole when it is actively feeding, for example, from a star that it recently tore apart (image credit: ESO/L. Calçada)
- The black hole detected on March 11 was named MAXI J1820+070, for the instrument that detected it. The MAXI (Monitor of All-sky X-ray Image) mission is a set of X-ray detectors installed in JAXA's JEM (Japanese Experiment Module) of the International Space Station (ISS), that monitors the entire sky for X-ray outbursts and flares.
- Soon after the instrument picked up the black hole’s outburst, Steiner and his colleagues started observing the event with NASA’s NICER (Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer), another instrument aboard the ISS, which was designed partly by MIT, to measure the amount and timing of incoming X-ray photons.
- “This boomingly bright black hole came on the scene, and it was almost completely unobscured, so we got a very pristine view of what was going on,” Steiner says.
- A typical outburst can occur when a black hole sucks away enormous amounts of material from a nearby star. This material accumulates around the black hole, in a swirling vortex known as an accretion disk, which can span millions of miles across. Material in the disk that is closer to the center of the black hole spins faster, generating friction that heats up the disk.
- “The gas in the center is millions of degrees in temperature,” Steiner says. “When you heat something that hot, it shines out as X-rays. This disk can undergo avalanches and pour its gas down onto the central black hole at about a Mount Everest’s worth of gas per second. And that’s when it goes into outburst, which usually lasts about a year.”
- Scientists have previously observed that X-ray photons emitted by the accretion disk can ping-pong off high-energy electrons in a black hole’s corona. Steiner says some of these photons can scatter “out to infinity,” while others scatter back onto the accretion disk as higher-energy X-rays.
- By using NICER, the team was able to collect extremely precise measurements of both the energy and timing of X-ray photons throughout the black hole’s outburst. Crucially, they picked up “echoes,” or lags between low-energy photons (those that may have initially been emitted by the accretion disk) and high-energy photons (the X-rays that likely had interacted with the corona’s electrons). Over the course of a month, the researchers observed that the length of these lags decreased significantly, indicating that the distance between the corona and the accretion disk was also shrinking. But was it the disk or the corona that was shifting in?
- To answer this, the researchers measured a signature that astronomers know as the “iron line” — a feature that is emitted by the iron atoms in an accretion disk only when they are energized, such as by the reflection of X-ray photons off a corona’s electrons. Iron, therefore, can measure the inner boundary of an accretion disk.
- When the researchers measured the iron line throughout the outburst, they found no measurable change, suggesting that the disk itself was not shifting in shape, but remaining relatively stable. Together with the evidence of a diminishing X-ray lag, they concluded that it must be the corona that was changing, and shrinking as a result of the black hole’s outburst.
- “We see that the corona starts off as this bloated, 100-kilometer blob inside the inner accretion disk, then shrinks down to something like 10 kilometers, over about a month,” Steiner says. “This is the first unambiguous case of a corona shrinking while the disk is stable.”
- “NICER has allowed us to measure light echoes closer to a stellar-mass black hole than ever before,” Kara adds. “Previously these light echoes off the inner accretion disk were only seen in supermassive black holes, which are millions to billions of solar masses and evolve over millions of years. Stellar black holes like J1820 have much lower masses and evolve much faster, so we can see changes play out on human time scales.”
- While it’s unclear what is exactly causing the corona to contract, Steiner speculates that the cloud of high-energy electrons is being squeezed by the overwhelming pressure generated by the accretion disk’s in-falling avalanche of gas.
- The findings offer new insights into an important phase of a black hole’s outburst, known as a transition from a hard to a soft state. Scientists have known that at some point early on in an outburst, a black hole shifts from a “hard” phase that is dominated by the corona’s energy, to a “soft” phase that is ruled more by the accretion disk’s emissions.
- “This transition marks a fundamental change in a black hole’s mode of accretion,” Steiner says. “But we don’t know exactly what’s going on. How does a black hole transition from being dominated by a corona to its disk? Does the disk move in and take over, or does the corona change and dissipate in some way? This is something people have been trying to unravel for decades And now this is a definitive piece of work in regards to what’s happening in this transition phase, and that what’s changing is the corona.”
• August 14, 2018: This time-lapse video, obtained June 8, 2018, shows the precise choreography of NASA’s Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) as it studies pulsars and other X-ray sources from its perch aboard the International Space Station. NICER observes and tracks numerous sources each day, ranging from the star closest to the Sun, Proxima Centauri, to X-ray sources in other galaxies. Movement in the movie, which represents a little more than one 90-minute orbit, is sped up by 100 times. 22)
Figure 23: This time-lapse video, obtained June 8, 2018, shows the precise choreography of NASA's Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer (NICER) as it studies pulsars and other X-ray sources from its perch aboard the International Space Station (video credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Scientific Visualization Studio)
- One factor in NICER’s gyrations is the motion of the space station’s solar arrays, each of which extends 34 meters. Long before the panels can encroach on NICER’s field of view, the instrument pirouettes to aim its 56 X-ray telescopes at a new celestial target.
- As the movie opens, the station’s solar arrays are parked to prepare for the arrival and docking of the Soyuz MS-09 flight, which launched on June 6 carrying three members of the Expedition 56 crew. Then the panels reorient themselves and begin their normal tracking of the Sun.
- Neutron stars, also called pulsars, are the crushed cores left behind when massive stars explode. They hold more mass than the Sun in a ball no bigger than a city. NICER aims to discover more about pulsars by obtaining precise measures of their size, which will determine their internal make-up. An embedded technology demonstration, called SEXTANT (Station Explorer for X-ray Timing and Navigation Technology), is paving the way for using pulsars as beacons for a future GPS-like system to aid spacecraft navigation in the solar system — and beyond.
• May 10, 2018: Scientists analyzing the first data from the NICER (Neutron star Interior Composition Explorer) mission have found two stars that revolve around each other every 38 minutes — about the time it takes to stream a TV drama. One of the stars in the system, called IGR J17062–6143 (J17062 for short), is a rapidly spinning, superdense star called a pulsar. The discovery bestows the stellar pair with the record for the shortest-known orbital period for a certain class of pulsar binary system. 23)
- The data from NICER also show J17062’s stars are only about 300,000 km apart, less than the distance between Earth and the Moon. Based on the pair’s breakneck orbital period and separation, scientists involved in a new study of the system think the second star is a hydrogen-poor white dwarf.
- “It’s not possible for a hydrogen-rich star, like our Sun, to be the pulsar’s companion,” said Tod Strohmayer an astrophysicist at Goddard and lead author on the paper. “You can’t fit a star like that into an orbit so small.”
- A previous 20-minute observation by the RXTE (Rossi X-ray Timing Explorer) in 2008 was only able to set a lower limit for J17062’s orbital period. NICER, which was installed aboard the International Space Station last June, has been able to observe the system for much longer periods of time. In August, the instrument focused on J17062 for more than seven hours over 5.3 days. Combining additional observations in October and November, the science team was able to confirm the record-setting orbital period for a binary system containing what astronomers call an accreting millisecond X-ray pulsar (AMXP).
- When a massive star goes supernova, its core collapses into a black hole or a neutron star, which is small and superdense — around the size of a city but containing more mass than the Sun. Neutron stars are so hot the light they radiate passes red-hot, white-hot, UV-hot and enters the X-ray portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. A pulsar is a rapidly spinning neutron star.
- The 2008 RXTE observation of J17062 found X-ray pulses recurring 163 times a second. These pulses mark the locations of hot spots around the pulsar’s magnetic poles, so they allow astronomers to determine how fast it’s spinning. J17062’s pulsar is rotating at about 9,800 revolutions per minute.
- Hot spots form when a neutron star’s intense gravitational field pulls material away from a stellar companion — in J17062, from the white dwarf — where it collects into an accretion disk. Matter in the disk spirals down, eventually making its way onto the surface. Neutron stars have strong magnetic fields, so the material lands on the surface of the star unevenly, traveling along the magnetic field to the magnetic poles where it creates hot spots.
- The constant barrage of in-falling gas causes accreting pulsars to spin more rapidly. As they spin, the hot spots come in and out of the view of X-ray instruments like NICER, which record the fluctuations. Some pulsars rotate over 700 times per second, comparable to the blades of a kitchen blender. X-ray fluctuations from pulsars are so predictable that NICER’s companion experiment, SEXTANT (Station Explorer for X-ray Timing and Navigation Technology), has already shown they can serve as beacons for autonomous navigation by future spacecraft.
- Over time, material from the donor star builds up on the surface of the neutron star. Once the pressure of this layer builds up to the point where its atoms fuse, a runaway thermonuclear reaction occurs, releasing the energy equivalent of 100 15-megaton bombs exploding over every square centimeter, explained Strohmayer. X-rays from such outbursts can also be captured by NICER, although one has yet to be seen from J17062.
- The researchers were able to determine that J17062’s stars revolve around each other in a circular orbit, which is common for AMXPs. The white dwarf donor star is a “lightweight,” only around 1.5 percent of our Sun’s mass. The pulsar is much heavier, around 1.4 solar masses, which means the stars orbit a point around 3,000 km from the pulsar. Strohmayer said it’s almost as if the donor star orbits a stationary pulsar, but NICER is sensitive enough to detect a slight fluctuation in the pulsar’s X-ray emission due to the tug from the donor star.
- “The distance between us and the pulsar is not constant,” Strohmayer said. “It’s varying by this orbital motion. When the pulsar is closer, the X-ray emission takes a little less time to reach us than when it’s further away. This time delay is small, only about 8 milliseconds for J17062's orbit, but it’s well within the capabilities of a sensitive pulsar machine like NICER.”
- The results of the study were published May 9 in The Astrophysical Journal Letters.
- NICER’s mission is to provide high-precision measurements to further study the physics and behavior of neutron stars. Other first-round results from the instrument have provided details about one object’s thermonuclear bursts and explored what happens to the accretion disk during these events.
- “Neutron stars turn out to be truly unique nuclear physics laboratories, from a terrestrial standpoint,” said Zaven Arzoumanian, a Goddard astrophysicist and lead scientist for NICER. “We can’t recreate the conditions on neutron stars anywhere within our solar system. One of NICER’s key objectives is to study subatomic physics that isn’t accessible anywhere else.”
• May 3, 2018: Now that NASA has shown the viability of autonomous X-ray navigation in space, a team led by the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory plans to include the technology on a proposed CubeSat mission to the Moon, and NASA engineers are now studying the possibly of adding the capability to future human-exploration spacecraft. 24) 25)
- Interest in this emerging capability to guide spacecraft to the far reaches of the solar system comes just months after NASA scientist Keith Gendreau and his team at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, successfully demonstrated the technique — commonly known as XNAV — with an experiment called SEXTANT (Station Explorer for X-ray Timing and Navigation Technology.
- The SEXTANT technology demonstration took place late last year and demonstrated that millisecond pulsars could be used to accurately determine the location of an object moving at thousands of miles per hour in space. These pulsations are highly predictable, much like the atomic clocks used to provide timing data on the ubiquitous GPS system.
- During the demonstration, SEXTANT took advantage of the 52 X-ray telescopes and silicon drift detectors on NASA’s NICER (Neutron-star Interior Composition Explorer), to detect X-rays emanating from four millisecond-pulsar targets. The pulsars’ timing data were fed into onboard algorithms that autonomously generated a navigation solution for the location of NICER in orbit around Earth.
- The team is expected to carry out another XNAV demonstration later this spring to see if it can improve on the technology’s already impressive accuracy, said SEXTANT Project Manager Jason Mitchell at GSFC.
- Navigation Testbed: In another development that could broaden XNAV’s use, the SEXTANT team recently delivered a special testbed to the Aeromechanics and Flight Mechanics Division’s Electro-Optics Lab at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston. The team developed the unique tabletop device – sometimes described as a ‘pulsar on a table’ – to simulate the low-strength signals received from pulsars. The measurements obtained from XNAV will be used to test algorithms being developed for future crewed missions.
Figure 24: Engineers Luke Winternitz (left), Jason Mitchell (right), and their team developed a unique tabletop device — aptly described as a “pulsar on a table” — to simulate rapid-fire X-ray pulsations needed to test algorithms and other advanced technologies for X-ray navigation. The team recently delivered the special testbed to the Orion development team at the Johnson Space Center (image credit: NASA)
- XNAV sensors complement optical-navigation (OpNav) sensors. Together, they can serve as an autonomous navigation package to aid vehicles in case of loss of communications with the ground and to relieve the navigation tracking burden on NASA’s Deep Space Network.
- Mitchell said NASA’s Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, where astronauts will participate in a variety of science, exploration, and commercial activities in orbit around and on the Moon, could employ XNAV capabilities.
- CubeX: Characterizing the Lunar Surface. And in another development, the SEXTANT team is working with Suzanne Romaine, a scientist with the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, and JaeSub Hong, a researcher with Harvard University, to fly XNAV on a CubeSat mission called CubeX.
- “This is a push to move the technology into the operational mode,” said Mitchell, who, along with Gendreau, is a CubeX collaborator. “This is great opportunity for XNAV and showing its value to navigating in deep space.”
• January 11, 2018: In a technology first, a team of NASA engineers has demonstrated fully autonomous X-ray navigation in space — a capability that could revolutionize NASA’s ability in the future to pilot robotic spacecraft to the far reaches of the solar system and beyond. 26) 27)
- The demonstration, which the team carried out with an experiment called SEXTANT (Station Explorer for X-ray Timing and Navigation Technology), showed that millisecond pulsars could be used to accurately determine the location of an object moving at thousands of miles per hour in space — similar to how the GPS (Global Positioning System) provides positioning, navigation, and timing services to users on Earth with its constellation of 24 operating satellites.
- “This demonstration is a breakthrough for future deep space exploration,” said SEXTANT Project Manager Jason Mitchell, an aerospace technologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “As the first to demonstrate X-ray navigation fully autonomously and in realtime in space, we are now leading the way.”
- This technology provides a new option for deep space navigation that could work in concert with existing spacecraft-based radio and optical systems.
- Although it could take a few years to mature an X-ray navigation system practical for use on deep-space spacecraft, the fact that NASA engineers proved it could be done bodes well for future interplanetary space travel. Such a system provides a new option for spacecraft to autonomously determine their locations outside the currently used Earth-based global navigation networks because pulsars are accessible in virtually every conceivable fight regime, from LEO (Low Earth Orbit) to deepest space.
Figure 25: NICER’s mirror assemblies concentrate X-rays onto silicon detectors to gather data that probes the interior makeup of neutron stars, including those that appear to flash regularly, called pulsars (image credit: NASGSFC, Keith Gendreau)
- Exploiting NICER Telescopes: The SEXTANT technology demonstration, which NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate had funded under its Game Changing Program, took advantage of the 52 X-ray telescopes and silicon-drift detectors that make up NASA’s NICER (Neutron-star Interior Composition Explorer). Since its successful deployment as an external attached payload on the International Space Station in June, it has trained its optics on some of the most unusual objects in the universe.
- “We’re doing very cool science and using the space station as a platform to execute that science, which in turn enables X-ray navigation,” said Goddard’s Keith Gendreau, the principal investigator for NICER, who presented the findings Thursday, Jan. 11, at the American Astronomical Society meeting in Washington. “The technology will help humanity navigate and explore the galaxy.”
- NICER, an observatory about the size of a washing machine, currently is studying neutron stars and their rapidly pulsating cohort, called pulsars. Although these stellar oddities emit radiation across the electromagnetic spectrum, observing in the X-ray band offers the greatest insights into these unusual, incredibly dense celestial objects, which, if compressed any further, would collapse completely into black holes. Just one teaspoonful of neutron star matter would weigh a billion tons on Earth.
- Although NICER is studying all types of neutron stars, the SEXTANT experiment is focused on observations of pulsars. Radiation emanating from their powerful magnetic fields is swept around much like a lighthouse. The narrow beams are seen as flashes of light when they sweep across our line of sight. With these predictable pulsations, pulsars can provide high-precision timing information similar to the atomic-clock signals supplied through the GPS system.
- While the ubiquitously used GPS system is accurate to within a few feet for Earth-bound users, this level of accuracy is not necessary when navigating to the far reaches of the solar system where distances between objects measure in the millions of miles. “In deep space, we hope to reach accuracies in the hundreds of feet,” Mitchell said.
Figure 26: This illustration shows the NICER mission at work aboard the International Space Station (image credit: NASA/GSFC)
- Next Steps and the Future: Now that the team has demonstrated the system, Luke Winternitz said the team will focus on updating and fine-tuning both flight and ground software in preparation for a second experiment later in 2018. The ultimate goal, which may take years to realize, would be to develop detectors and other hardware to make pulsar-based navigation readily available on future spacecraft. To advance the technology for operational use, teams will focus on reducing the size, weight, and power requirements and improving the sensitivity of the instruments. The SEXTANT team now also is discussing the possible application of X-ray navigation to support human spaceflight, Mitchell added.
- If an interplanetary mission to the moons of Jupiter or Saturn were equipped with such a navigational device, for example, it would be able to calculate its location autonomously, for long periods of time without communicating with Earth.
- Mitchell said that GPS is not an option for these far-flung missions because its signal weakens quickly as one travels beyond the GPS satellite network around Earth. “This successful demonstration firmly establishes the viability of X-ray pulsar navigation as a new autonomous navigation capability. We have shown that a mature version of this technology could enhance deep-space exploration anywhere within the solar system and beyond,” Mitchell said. “It is an awesome technology first.”
• September 22, 2017: NICER has observed the new X-ray transient MAXI J1535-571 (GCN #21788, ATels #10699, #10700, #10702, #10704, #10708, #10711, #10714, #10716, #10734, #10745) several times from 2017 September 9 through September 20. Over this time the flux has grown from 3 x 10-8 erg/cm2/s to 1.2 x 10 -7 erg/cm2/s (2-10 keV). The heavily absorbed source had a NICER count rate grew from 3200 to 17,000 counts/s over this period. We fit the time-averaged 1-9.5 keV spectrum of 5.4 ksec of MAXI J1535-571 data taken on September 13 with a model consisting of a disk blackbody and relativistic reflection including an intrinsic power-law (relxill), modified by interstellar absorption (tbabs).A number of Gaussian-lines were included in the model to account for instrument-related residuals that will be corrected in later calibrations. We measured a column density of N H = (4.89 ± 0.06) x 1022 cm-2; this is about twice the value derived from Swift data (ATel #10731). 28)
• August 1, 2017: NICER-SEXTANT is the first astrophysics mission dedicated to studying pulsars, 50 years after their discovery. “I think it is going to yield many more scientific discoveries than we can anticipate now,” said Gendreau.
- NICER's X-ray observations – the part of the electromagnetic spectrum in which these stars radiate both from their million-degree solid surfaces and from their strong magnetic fields – will reveal how nature’s fundamental forces behave within the cores of these objects, an environment that doesn’t exist and can’t be reproduced anywhere else. "What's inside a pulsar?" is one of many long-standing astrophysics questions about these ultra-dense, fast-spinning, powerfully magnetic objects. 29)
- The mission will also pave the way for future space exploration by helping to develop a Global Positioning System-like capability for the galaxy. The embedded SEXTANT (Station Explorer for X-ray Timing and Navigation Technology) demonstration will use NICER’s X-ray observations of pulsar signals to determine NICER's exact position in orbit.
- “You can time the pulsations of pulsars distributed in many directions around a spacecraft to figure out where the vehicle is and navigate it anywhere,” said Arzoumanian, who is also the NICER science lead. “That’s exactly how the GPS system on Earth works, with precise clocks flown on satellites in orbit.” Scientists have tested this method using computer and lab simulations. SEXTANT will demonstrate pulsar-based navigation for the first time in space.
• NICER was launched to the International Space Station on 3 June. On June 13, NICER was installed at ELC-2 on the ISS. Since then, operations started ; the first month was ”commissioning”, finalizing the alignment of our X-ray detectors with the star tracker (looking at over 100 unique targets). The science operations started on 17 July.30)
Figure 27: During NICER commissioning, an observation of low-mass X-ray binary 4U 1608–522 revealed a serendipitous Type I X-ray burst, a flare resulting from a thermonuclear explosion on the surface of a neutron star. 4U 1608 consists of a neutron star in a close orbit with a low-mass star from which it is drawing gas. As this matter accretes and piles up on the neutron star surface, its density in the strong-gravity environment increases until an explosive nuclear fusion reaction is ignited. The heated neutron star surface and atmosphere glow in X-rays, cooling and dimming over the span of about one minute. The hot-spot on the star swings in and out of NICER’s view as the star spins, approximately 619 times each second; these fluctuations in X-ray brightness, and their evolution during the burst, are indicated by the purple contours in the lower panel. NICER provides a unique opportunity to study such bursts, tracing flame propagation and other phenomena through the burst's temperature and brightness changes over time, with simultaneous fast-timing and spectroscopy capability not previously available (image credit: credit: NASA)
Figure 28: NICER was installed on the ISS and is currently being tested. This turntable animation of the payload calls out the locations of NICER’s star tracker camera, electronics, space station attachment mechanism, 56 sunshields, pointing actuators and stow/deploy actuator (image credit: NASA/GSFC)
NICER / SEXTANT (Station Explorer for X-ray Timing and Navigation Technology) instrumentation
The NICER/SEXTANT instrument consists of 56 X-ray telescopes in a compact bundle, their associated silicon detectors, and a number of other advanced technologies. NICER's XTI (X-ray Timing Instrument) represents an innovative configuration of high-heritage components. The heart of the instrument is an aligned collection of 56 X-ray "concentrator" optics (XRC) and SDD (Silicon Drift Detector) pairs. Each XRC collects X-rays over a large geometric area from a roughly 30 arcmin2 region of the sky and focuses them onto a small SDD. The SDD detects individual photons, recording their energies with good (few percent) spectral resolution and their detection times to an unprecedented 100 nanoseconds RMS relative to Universal Time. Together, this assemblage provides a high SNR (Signal-to-Noise Ratio) photon-counting capability within the 0.2-12 keV X-ray band, perfectly matched to the typical spectra of neutron stars as well as a broad collection of other astrophysical sources.
SEXTANT is a NASA funded technology demonstration. SEXTANT will, for the first time, demonstrate real-time, on-board XNAV (X-ray Pulsar-based Navigation), a significant milestone in the quest to establish a GPS-like navigation capability available throughout our Solar System and beyond (Ref. 3). 31) 32)
SEXTANT will, for the first time, demonstrate realtime, on-board XNAV (X-ray Pulsar-based Navigation), a significant milestone in the quest to establish a GPS-like navigation capability available throughout our Solar System and beyond. The SEXTANT demonstration will exploit the large collecting area (> 1800 cm2), low background (< 0.2 counts/s), and precise timing (< 100 ns, 1σ) provided by NICER’s X-ray timing instrument.
SEXTANT will demonstrate the use of MPSs (Millisecond Pulsars), rapidly spinning neutron stars, as deep-space navigation beacons which could someday guide humankind out of Earth orbit, to destinations throughout the Solar System and beyond. SEXTANT’s primary objective is to demonstrate realtime orbit determination with an uncertainty better than 10 km with 2 weeks of measurements in the highly dynamic LEO (Low Earth Orbit) of the ISS. SEXTANT also includes the development of a ground testbed, called the GXLT, (Goddard XNAV Lab Testbed) that enables realtime and faster than realtime simulation of navigation scenarios. With the addition of a unique MXS (Modulated X-Ray Source), flight-like X-ray detector, and time-tagging electronics, this testbed provides a test-as-you-fly HWIL (Hardware-In-The-Loop) simulation capability.
The SEXTANT demonstration is a technology enhancement to the NICER mission, which is an X-ray Astrophysics Mission of Opportunity to the ISS that is currently in Phase C and plans to launch in 2017. NICER will undertake a fundamental investigation of extremes in gravity, material density, and electromagnetic fields of rapidly spinning neutron stars via time-resolved X-ray spectroscopy . NICER achieves this objective by deploying an X-ray telescope instrument as an attached payload on a zenith-side ELC-2 (ExPRESS Logistics Carrier-2) aboard the ISS, Figure 29. NICER offers over an order-of-magnitude improvement in time-coherent sensitivity and timing resolution beyond the capabilities of any X-ray observatory flown to date. As a flight software augmentation to NICER, SEXTANT will use a subset of the data collected for the NICER science program, on-board and in real-time, to accomplish its objective.
The ubiquity, reliability, and accuracy of the GPS (Global Positioning System) has revolutionized terrestrial navigation over the past two decades. Space users, within the GPS Space Service Volume (SSV), have also benefited from the abundance of GPS radiometric measurements to autonomously obtain position, velocity and time on-board and in real-time. The use of GPS for space navigation is well established in LEO (Low Earth Orbit). More recently, its use has been extended to GEO (Geosynchronous Earth Orbit) and HEOs (Highly Eccentric Orbits). It has also been explored for lunar libration point and lunar transfer orbits.
Unfortunately, GPS is available only to space users within Earth’s vicinity. To enable autonomous navigation for future missions operating far from Earth-based navigation beacons, the SEXTANT (Station Explorer for X-ray Timing and Navigation Technology) will use rapidly spinning neutron stars to demonstrate a GPS-like navigation capability available throughout the Solar System. This technology also holds the ultimate promise of enabling travel beyond our Solar System, to other stars.
Figure 29: Illustration of the NICER payload model (image credit: NASA, NICER/SEXTANT Team) 33)
X-ray pulsar navigation history:
Use of radio pulsars as navigation beacons was first considered shortly after their discovery. 34) The idea was later extended to X-rays using the earliest established X-ray pulsars, but the achievable accuracy was severely limited by the noise characteristics of the X-ray pulsars known at the time. X-rays do not penetrate the Earth’s atmosphere to sea level. Thus, the X-ray form of the concept is inherently limited to operations above atmospheres and perhaps planetary surfaces with thin atmospheres or none, but has the advantage that it permits comparatively small sensors to be used. The first X-ray satellite instrument developed with a specific goal of exploring the feasibility of X-ray satellite navigation techniques was the USA (Unconventional Stellar Aspect) Experiment flown in 1999 on the DoD ARGOS Satellite, under the Space Test Program. 35) This experiment explored a broader vision of X-ray navigation, not limited to use of pulsars for position determination, but also studying use of occultations, which require no pulses and may use bright sources, a technique suitable for satellites in orbits near planets. It furthermore was not limited to position determination but also evaluated X-ray sensors for attitude determination and time transfer. For these applications it primarily conducted feasibility assessment exercises rather than full operational demonstrations.
During the late 1990s X-rays began to be detected from MSPs (Millisecond Pulsars), which had previously been known only as radio pulsars. 36) This removed the earlier limitation associated with the intrinsic pulsar clock noise but entailed observing a considerably fainter class of X-ray sources. The USA Experiment lacked sufficient sensitivity and on-board timekeeping accuracy to study this source class effectively, but it was recognized that X-ray MSPs would greatly improve the accuracy of an X-ray pulsar-based navigation system, hence the conceptual development path was laid out in paper studies and a patent (US Patent 7,197,381). A DARPA program emphasizing MSP navigation represented the next phase of DoD development and introduced the term XNAV for the specific pulse timing based methodology. The deep space navigation application of XNAV described above was also analyzed . During this program the first laboratory facility to simulate X-ray pulsars was built at NASA/GSFC and used to test sensor prototypes. As of 2014, the concept of X-ray navigation is being widely discussed, in several other countries as well as the US. 37) 38)
As the DARPA program advanced, it became increasingly clear that the detector concept most appropriate for the X-ray MSP population would need to include optics to enhance SNR (Signal-to- Noise Ratio). Optical systems that focus X-rays have been developed for many different astronomical purposes. High performance systems provide full imagery for extended sources or groups of point sources. A by-product of the focusing is that SNR is greatly improved because photons are collected over the full aperture of the focusing system while background is collected only over the much smaller active area of the detector; SNR is enhanced, roughly, by the ratio of those areas. When the goal is to obtain the spectrum or time history of a single source, it is possible to obtain the latter benefit without the cost of the former by using optics of lower performance that can be made low weight as well as low cost. NASA/GSFC has broad experience in such designs, dating back to the Broad Band X-ray Telescope, flown on space shuttle Columbia in 1990.
A modern, low-cost and low-mass optic combined with a SDD (Silicon Drift Detector) emerged as an excellent design for observing X-ray MSPs for navigational purposes. This same design was also ideal for the science that forms the NICER mission goals in astrophysics. In this way, a scientific mission (NICER) and an engineering demonstration (SEXTANT) became realizable in a single package. Moreover, the driving technical requirements flowing down from the scientific objectives were able to cover the requirements for SEXTANT, i.e., the latter did not levy additional requirements beyond those imposed by the purely scientific mission goals.
The SEXTANT technology demonstration objective is to perform real-time, on-board XNAV-only orbit determination, via sequential observation of multiple MSPs (Table 1). In the highly dynamic ISS orbit, SEXTANT will use an intentionally degraded initial orbital position, provided by NICER’s GPS receiver, then maintain its orbital position knowledge by processing only XNAV measurements. The demonstration will be considered successful if the on-board position knowledge error reaches ≤ 10 km, worst direction, with two weeks of valid measurements derived from a navigation focused observation schedule. The baseline experiment includes two attempts to achieve this objective: one early in mission operations using ground-based radio observatory derived pulsar timing models, and one later in mission operations using NICER augmented timing models. The performance of the XNAV system will be determined by comparison with the available on-board GPS solution.
If time permits during NICER mission operations, and with complementary observation schedules, a number of additional objectives will be pursued. In line with the primary objective previously stated, a stretch primary objective is to attempt to reach ≤ 1 km on-board position knowledge error, worst direction, with up to 4-weeks of valid measurements from a navigation focused observation schedule. This presents a supreme challenge in the highly dynamic ISS orbit.
The study of long-term pulsar clock stability is a secondary objective that is shared with NICER’s fundamental science. Since MSPs rival terrestrial atomic clocks, XNAV observations may be used to support spacecraft time and frequency maintenance, or spacecraft clock synchronization for coordinated measurements over long distances.
Since all NICER photon data will be telemetered to the ground and archived, it will be available for use in ground experiments in which SEXTANT will explore variations and enhancements to its on-board algorithms. Planned ground investigations include exploring the effect on navigation performance of intentionally degrading photon event timestamps resulting from an imperfect spacecraft clock, and attempting to eliminate the need for an initial seed state by batch processing an extended observation sequence—Event times are referenced to GPS time.
Requirements: Demonstrating XNAV-only navigation in LEO on ISS is a considerable challenge. Several factors work to limit the available time to observe MSPs: 1) the highly dynamic perturbation-rich ISS orbit, 2) payload mechanical pointing limitations, 3) ISS structural interference and source occultations, and 4) Sun, Earth, and Moon exclusion zones. This is exacerbated by the faintness of the most desirable MSPs for navigation. Consequently, this objective is less than the ultimate potential accuracy of XNAV-only position determination, which is expected to be on the order of hundreds of meters with a NICER-like instrument in lower dynamic environments, e.g., an interplanetary cruise phase.
To achieve SEXTANT’s technology objective, a set of basic technical requirements were developed. The requirements, enumerated below, assume a detector capable of providing source and background count rates as specified in Table 1.
* Source and background count rates for a NICER-like detector configuration include consideration of effective detector area, field of view, energy band, operational regime background radiation, etc.
While these requirements satisfy SEXTANT, they are not specifically levied as elements of the NICER mission requirements because the requirements that drive the NICER science objectives meet or exceed the SEXTANT requirements specified above. Further, a dedicated period of observing time will be made available wherein SEXTANT objectives receive consideration in optimizing the target observation schedule. The interval will be long enough to realize the requirements given in Table 2.
XNAV (X-ray Pulsar Navigation):
X-ray observations of celestial sources can provide useful navigation information to spacecraft in a range of applications from LEO to interplanetary, and even interstellar, space. One source of such information are X-ray emitting pulsars, which are neutron stars whose X-ray emission is modulated at the rotational period of the star. In the XNAV concept, X-ray observations of such pulsars are being used for spacecraft navigation. A subset of pulsars, the millisecond pulsars, are highly stable clocks, with long term stability comparable to laboratory atomic clocks. For these pulsars, a simple physical model with a small number of parameters can predict the arrival time of pulses to microsecond accuracy over months or years. A measurement of the difference between the arrival time of a pulse at a spacecraft and the predicted arrival time according to an onboard navigation solution can provide an error signal that can be used to measure the location of the spacecraft in a manner similar to GPS (Figure 30).
The use of radio pulsars as navigation beacons was first considered shortly after their discovery . 39) The idea was later extended to X-rays using the earliest established X-ray pulsars, 40) but the achievable accuracy was severely limited by the noise characteristics of the X-ray pulsars known at the time. The first X-ray instrument with a specific goal of exploring X-ray navigation techniques was the USA (Unconventional Stellar Aspect) experiment, flown in 1999 on the DoD ARGOS satellite, under the Space Test Program . This experiment explored a broader concept of X-ray navigation, not limited to pulsars and also not limited to position determination but considering also time transfer and aspect determination.
During the 1990s X-rays began to be detected from millisecond pulsars previously known only as radio pulsars. 41) This development greatly improved the expected accuracy of an XNAV system and spurred detailed studies, resulting in a patent on the idea (US Patent 7,197,381). A DARPA program emphasizing millisecond pulsar methodologies represented the next stage of DoD development, and it was during this program that the first laboratory facility to simulate X-ray pulsars was developed at NASA/GSFC. By now the concept of X-ray navigation is being pursued in several other countries as well as the U.S. 42) 43)
XNAV has the potential to become an enabling technology for very deep space exploration missions and an important augmentation to NASA’s DSN (Deep Space Network), the current standard for interplanetary navigation and communication. 44)
The NICER XTI (X-ray Timing Instrument):
The key measurable for an XNAV instrument are pulse arrival times determined from a set of detected X-ray photons. The instrument must be designed to be able to produce a high signal-to-noise pulse profile in an integration time that is short compared to the timescale for a propagated orbit to deviate from the true trajectory by more than the required navigation accuracy. In turn, this requires a detector with the following characteristics: large effective area in the region of the X-ray spectrum where MSP pulsations can be observed (roughly 0.2–8 keV), high precision time tagging of each X-ray photon, and low background rates. To be useful in future spacecraft navigation applications, this should be achieved with the lowest possible mass, volume, and power requirements.
The NICER XTI is extremely well suited to this task (Figure 31). It is a modular array of 56 identical telescopes, making it easily scalable to a range of potential applications. Each telescope consists of a lightweight grazing-incidence optic made up of concentric foil mirrors. The mirrors concentrate X-rays onto a small (1 mm radius unobstructed circular aperture) detector area using a single bounce, in contrast to typical (e.g. Wolter I) 45) imaging X-ray optics that require two bounces and thus incur a significant efficiency penalty to achieve quality imaging. The XTI provides over 1800 cm2 of area in a package with frontal area of 6400 cm2, an areal efficiency of 28%.
The X-ray detectors are commercial (Amptek) silicon drift detectors that have very high quantum efficiency over the photon energy range of interest. The detectors are read out by dual-channel electronics chains that provide both high time resolution (100 ns) and excellent spectral resolution (120 eV) with very low dead time. Particle backgrounds are low because of the small detector volume made possible by the concentrating optics, while particles that do interact in the detector can be rejected at high efficiency by their energy deposition and by filtering events that occurred outside of the illuminated area of the detector by a comparing the pulse heights determined by the slow and fast electronics channels. In addition to reducing particle backgrounds, the focusing of the mirrors reduces the backgrounds from the cosmic diffuse X-ray background and neighboring sources that are outside the ~6 arcmin (FWHM) field of view. The expected background rate in the critical 0.4–2 keV band is< 0.2 counts/s.
SEXTANT system architecture overview:
The SEXTANT system architecture is comprised of four main components: 1) the NICER XTI, 2) the flight software and algorithms, 3) the ground testbed, and 4) the ground system. The main components of the SEXTANT system and the data flow relationship among these components are shown in Figure 32 (Ref. 31).
1) XTI (X-ray Timing Instrument): NICER’s XTI is an array of 56 identical X-ray telescopes optimized for observations of neutron stars with high time resolution, good throughput, and low background (description above). Since the instrument does not require good imaging performance, the additional size, mass, and complexity and poorer efficiency of true imaging optics are not needed.
Event times recorded by the XTI are referenced to GPS time provided by NICER’s GPS receiver system, which gives absolute timing accuracy referenced to UTC to an accuracy of 100 ns RMS. In a future XNAV application outside of Earth orbit, this simplification would not be available. Such an XNAV system would require a stable clock that is either synchronized with UTC time via two-way time transfer, or steered based on XNAV pulsar observations to a pulsar-based time standard. This additional degree of freedom can be accommodated by observing more than the minimum 3 pulsars required to determine position alone.
2) Flight Software and Algorithms: Photon events, timestamped with GPS time, with associated pulse heights, which are proportional to photon energy, are the fundamental data provided by the NICER XTI to the SEXTANT XFSW (X-ray Pulsar Navigation Flight Software) application. The observed photon events are modeled as the arrival times of a NHPP (Non-Homogeneous Poisson process) with time varying mean cumulative count function. The photon arrival process at the detector is modeled as a delayed version of that at a hypothetical reference observatory, e.g., located at the Geocenter or at the SSB (Solar System Barycenter), with a delay given by the light propagation time of the pulse wavefront moving from the detector to the reference observatory. The relationship between the rate of the arrival process at the spacecraft and that at the reference observatory furnishes a measurement equation that connects the statistical model for the fundamental photon arrival process to the desired spacecraft state parameters. The phase evolution at the reference observatory is provided by the pulsar timing software Tempo2.
The XFSW implements the XNAV algorithms in C and runs as a single application hosted by the NICER IFSW (Instrument Flight Software) , which is based on the NASA/GSFC CFS (Core Flight System). As an application within the IFSW, it receives commands and sends telemetry via the CFS provided publish-and-subscribe software message bus. These messages include the photon events generated by NICER’s XTI, the ground commands to configure and manage the on-board pulsar almanac, and the GPS receiver position, which is used to initialize the orbit propagator. The XFSW algorithms are included in the application as a shared library containing two core components: photon processing algorithms, specially developed for SEXTANT, and navigation filter software based on an XNAV-enhanced version of the GEONS (Goddard Enhanced Onboard Navigation System) flight software package. The shared library allows the flight source code to be tested from within MATLAB via the C shared library interface.
SEXTANT XFSW operates as follows. Several MSPs from the SEXTANT catalog are observed in a sequence taking into account observation schedule and visibility constraints. After accumulating a sufficient number of photon events from a given MSP, the collected events are batch processed to extract pulse phase and Doppler measurements. These measurements are then passed to the GEONS navigation filter, where they are blended with models of the spacecraft dynamics to update an estimate of the spacecraft state.
Figure 33: Schematic of the SEXTANT ground testbed architecture showing the three simulation flows from orbit simulation through truth measurement simulation, photon processing and navigation filtering algorithms. The three levels of simulation split at measurement truth and primarily differ in the way estimates are produced. In Level 0, red (upper path) arrows, the measurements are simulated using the measurement model. In Level 1, green (lower path) arrows, the measurements are produced from software simulated photon events. In Level 2, blue (central path) arrows, the measurements are produced from HWIL simulated photon events (image credit: NASA, NICER/SEXTANT Team)
3) Ground Testbed: The GXLT (GSFC X-ray Navigation Laboratory Testbed) is a unique hardware and software test environment developed in support of the SEXTANT mission. The GXLT leverages several GSFC GN&C (Guidance, Navigation, and Control) software tools and X-ray source and detector technologies, and allows for rapid, high-fidelity, end-to-end simulation and performance evaluation of various spacecraft XNAV scenarios.
The overall end-to-end simulation architecture of the SEXTANT ground testbed, depicted in Figure 33, provides three simulation process flows which are indicated by the colored arrow paths. A simulation scenario definition specifies the simulation level and length, X-ray detector parameters, observation schedule that takes into account visibility constraints and observation times, pulsar target list and their models, a truth ephemeris file, event simulation options, photon processing algorithms, and orbit propagator parameters and navigation filter options.
The three simulation process flows, or levels, differ primarily in the fidelity and way XNAV measurements are estimated. The simulation levels are described below.
Level 0: Pulsar pulse phase and Doppler measurements are generated by the XNAV measurement model used by the navigation filter. Noise is intentionally added to these measurements based on expected uncertainty in generating the phase and Doppler estimates from the photon data. Simulation of measurements is a standard operating procedure for fast simulations and for navigation performance evaluation, i.e., no hardware-in-the-loop. This flow is indicated by the red (upper path) arrows in Figure 33.
Level 1: Measurement generation fidelity is increased by simulating the photon arrival process in software, then extracting the realized pulse phase and Doppler estimates. This flow is indicated by the green (lower path) arrows in Figure 33.
Level 2: Measurement fidelity is further increased by replacing the software simulated photon process with a HWIL (Hardware-in-the-Loop) process obtained from the GXLT X-ray pulsar simulator hardware, which is driven by various XNAV pulsar observation scenarios. This flow is indicated by the blue (central path) arrows in Figure 33.
4) Ground System: The NICER ground system will reside in a SMOC ( Science Mission Operations Center) at NASA/GSFC, and will have responsibility for the health and safety of the NICER payload, as well as the scheduling of observations in a manner designed to meet the primary mission science objectives. The SEXTANT ground system is comprised of two components: a monitoring and trending element, which resides within the NICER SMOC, and an external component that maintains the pulsar almanac and provides scheduling recommendations to NICER. Since the primary pulsar targets are common between NICER and SEXTANT, scheduling needs can be met within the constraints of NICER’s nominal operations concept.
The primary function of SEXTANT’s ground system is to generate and maintain the pulsar information needed to support the XNAV demonstration objectives. This includes parameterized pulse timing models, polynomial-based pulse phase predictions used by the flight software, X-ray profile templates, and count rate estimates. The ground system receives pulsar timing data from ground-based radio telescopes, X-ray telescopes, and NICER itself. The SEXTANT ground system also collects telemetry data and analyzes it for navigation performance monitoring purposes (Figure 34).
The SEXTANT pulsar catalog, consists of pulsars that have been identified as suitable for navigation. The pulsar selection criteria are based on predictive accuracy of the timing model and the precision of TOAs (Time-of-Arrivals) measured with XTI in a 30 minute observation, which is determined from the X-ray brightness, pulse period, lightcurve shape, and unpulsed background rate. The current SEXTANT pulsar catalog contains 11 pulsars, shown in Table 3 and Figure 35, and will be supplemented by new pulsars discovered and characterized before launch and by NICER once operational.
The SEXTANT ground system uses the Tempo2 pulsar timing software to generate timing models by fitting parameterized models to measured radio and X-ray pulse TOAs. During SEXTANT operations, the ground system will measure the phase relationship between the radio and X-ray templates and track variations in the pulsar dispersion measure to maintain alignment.
The Tempo2 timing model parameters are not suitable for direct use by the flight software due to computational complexity. Instead, we use Tempo2 in its predictive mode to generate piecewise polynomial approximations to the full timing model that can be rapidly evaluated. These polynomials, together with astrometric parameters estimated as part of the timing model update, comprise the pulsar almanac that will be uploaded to the XFSW at regular intervals.
Table 3: SEXTANT pulsar catalog with source and background count rates for a NICER-like detector (Ref. 3)
Legend to Table 3 symbols:
a D is the distance to the pulsar in kpc (1 pc = 3.26 light-years)
b The measurement accuracy for this observation length is 1 µs, but the intrinsic rotational instability of the Crab Pulsar imposes a limit on the model prediction accuracy of about 10 µs over a few days.
c The phase error is given by σ = 2P / √〈IpT) with T = 1800 s.
SEXTANT will have two modes of operation during the NICER mission. Whenever NICER is observing MSPs, SEXTANT will attempt to make X-ray pulsar measurements and produce a navigation solution in an opportunistic mode. There will also be a dedicated two week window in which SEXTANT will directly influence the observation schedule in order to achieve the previously stated technology demonstration objective. The schedule must provide adequate observation time for each pulsar while obeying the visibility constraints of the pointing system. A navigation focused observation schedule will be developed to maximize navigation performance during this two week window.
Typical observation times will range from 10 min to several hours to produce navigation measurements. Ideal observation windows are often broken up by visibility restrictions either due to physical blockage of the pulsars or hardware constraints. For example, in a 90 minute ISS orbit, the Earth can block the line of sight to a pulsar for up to 45 minutes. Annually, the portion of the celestial sphere in the neighborhood of the Sun is also blocked from view of NICER (Figure 35). Pointing restrictions from the hardware include gimbal actuator limits and ISS structure exclusion zones.
Even with these visibility restrictions, generally, at least one pulsar is available for observation. Careful selection of pulsar sequencing in this challenging environment will produce a good navigation solution. The final observation schedule is created by weighing the impact of pulsar availability against the navigation quality of the measurements produced. Verification of the schedule’s impact on navigation performance is done in the high fidelity end-to-end simulation environment. Initial results have shown navigation performance meeting or exceeding SEXTANT’s goals.
Figure 35: The sky locations, in ecliptic coordinates, of SEXTANT’s top 10 navigation targets, and the Crab pulsar, are labeled around the figure and indicated as blue circles. The enclosed purple region represents the effect of a 45º Sun avoidance angle on a 3-month period, centered on December 21, with the exclusion zones shown at the beginning (yellow), middle (orange), and end (red). Targets that are unavailable due to Sun avoidance constraints appear as unfilled blue circles, while targets that remain visible during the period are filled (image credit: NASA, NICER/SEXTANT Team)
Ground system operations: The SEXTANT ground system will receive telemetry which will be input into the monitoring and trending functions located in the NICER SMOC. On a monthly cadence, the SEXTANT ground system will retrieve new radio and NICER pulse TOAs for all catalog pulsars, then update the pulsar almanac. More frequently, a new pulsar upload ephemeris will be generated and sent to the XFSW. The upload period is expected to be weekly, except for the Crab pulsar which requires more frequent updates.
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The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: ”Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors” (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (firstname.lastname@example.org).