Athena: Europe plans huge X-ray space telescope

Jun 28, 2014

By Jonathan Amos


Europe has initiated the process that should lead to the biggest X-ray space telescope ever built.

Dubbed Athena, the satellite will be some 12m in length and weigh about five tonnes when launched in 2028.

The European Space Agency’s (Esa) Science Programme Committeeselected the project at a meeting in Toulouse.

Design work now will confirm the technologies and industrial capability needed to construct the mission, which is costed at over one billion euros.

“It’s a tremendously exciting moment for the team; it’s not every day you have a billion-euro decision go in your favour,” said Prof Paul Nandra, the chairman of the Athena Coordination Group.

“We’ve just got to build it and get it up there, and as long as we do our job right, there’s nothing that should stop that,” he told BBC News.

Deep view

The SPC will meet again, probably in 2019, to give a full and final approval to the telescope project.

This should be a rubber stamping exercise – provided costs can be contained and no technical showstoppers are identified.

In truth, there should be no surprises. The Athena concept has been under study for a number of years already by leading scientists and industrial partners.

Athena is regarded as a next-generation observatory – an X-ray equivalent to the giant machines such as the Square Kilometre Array and the European Extremely Large Telescope that will view the cosmos at longer wavelengths.

Athena will have a survey capability and sensitivity a hundred times better than today’s best X-ray space telescopes – America’s Chandra mission, and Esa’s XMM-Newton telescope.

Athena will use its advanced optics and detectors to look deep into the Universe and far back in time.

Silicon optics

The key objectives are twofold – to understand how gas was assembled into the galaxies and galactic clusters we see around us today, and to study the origin and evolution of the monstrous black holes that reside at the centres of galaxies.

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