Team Prepares for Balloon Flight to Study Black Holes

From left to right: Electrical engineer Pal Dowkontt, graduate student Banafsheh Beheshtipour, Professor Krawczynski, and Professor Kislat in front of the X-ray telescope which will be launched in September 2016 to spy on black holes and neutron stars in our Milky Way galaxy.

Washington University team (from left to right): electrical engineer Paul Dowkontt, graduate student Banafsheh Beheshtipour, and professors Krawczynski and Kislat, at the Fort Sumner NASA station in front of the X-ray telescope. The  round object at the far end of the gondola’s optical bench is the X-ray mirror; the polarimeter is at the opposite end.

Washington University Professors Krawczynski and Kislat are leading a campaign to launch the 8-m focal length X-ray telescope X-Calibur on a stratospheric balloon flight. A helium filled balloon will carry the telescope to an altitude of 126,000 feet, where it will observe the X-ray emission from a sample of black holes, neutron stars, and pulsars in our Milky Way galaxy.

The payload will be launched between September 7 and September 30 from NASA’s Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility in Fort Sumner NM. The team will measure the polarization  (the plane in which the electric field of the X-rays oscillates) of the high-energy X-ray emission from two black holes and two neutron stars.The polarization holds information about how and where the X-Ray emission originates.

The team hopes to gain new insights into how black holes in a binary orbit with stars gobble up stellar matter and grow, as well as about the physical conditions close to neutron stars, 10-mile-diameter objects with masses exceeding the mass of our sun.

Currently, graduate student Banafsheh Beheshtipour, lead engineer Paul Dowkontt, and Professors Kislat and Krawczynski are in Fort Sumner assembling the experiment and aligning and calibrating the telescope and the focal-plane instrumentation. The team will be joined on September 4 by Dr. Matthias Beilicke who was centrally involved in the construction of the experiment.

The Washington University group is collaborating with several other groups on this project: the WASP (Wallops Arc Second Pointer) group of the Wallops Flight Facility, which provided the balloon gondola and the pointing system; the Goddard Space Flight Center group, which furnished the X-ray mirror; and the Brookhaven National Lab group, in charge of the Application Specific Integrated Circuits (ASICs) for the readout of the detectors. Washington University leads the scientific team, and designed and built the 8-m long carbon-fiber telescope truss, and the X-ray polarimeter.

The X-Calibur team includes several science collaborators: M. Baring of Rice University; A. Bodaghee of Georgia College; A. Falcone of Penn State;  T. Maccarone of Texas Tech.;  and J. Schnittman of Goddard Space Flight Center.

The X-Calibur team will provide updates on the status of the experiment and the ballooning campaign on this blog, so we hope you will subscribe.  Feedback and questions are welcome.

The X-Calibur project is funded by NASA under contract NNX14AD19G. The X-Calibur team thanks the McDonnell Center for the Space Sciences at Washington University for sponsoring the design and fabrication of a prototype polarimeter, and the Columbia Scientific Balloon Facility for supporting  the balloon flight.

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