Nasa has selected Orbital Sciences Corporation to design, develop, integrate and test a new satellite that will study X-ray polarisation in space.

Orbital Sciences will provide Nasa with a spacecraft bus and conduct mission operations for the Goddard Space Flight Center’s gravity and extreme magnetism (GEMS) mission under the $40m contract.

The GEMS satellite will be the first to systematically measure X-ray polarisation and encode information about the structure of cosmic sources.

Previous space-based X-ray observatories have been insensitive to polarisation that refers to the direction of the electric field of electromagnetic waves.

The mission will offer answers to questions about where energy is released near black holes, the origin of X-ray emissions from pulsars and the magnetic field structure in high energy nebulae. The new measurements will also aid in studying scattering magnetic fields and strong gravitational fields.

The satellite will be based on Orbital’s LEOStar-2 TM spacecraft bus design.

The low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite will be a part of Nasa’s small explorer (SMEX) series of cost efficient and highly productive space science satellites.

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Other programme partners include Nasa’s Ames Research Center, the University of Iowa and ATK.