December 21, 2015

Athena

Athena (Advanced Telescope for High-ENergy Astrophysics) is Europe’s future X-ray space observatory designed to study the most extreme observable phenomena in the Universe, like galaxy clusters and supermassive black holes, at unprecedented levels of detail and sensitivity.

Part of Europe’s Cosmic Vision programme, Athena is the successor to XMM-NEWTON and INTEGRAL. This telescope’s observations will span the formation of the first black holes in the Universe and large structures like galaxy groups and clusters. Its generalist design will also make Athena a powerful tool for studying a wide spectrum of astrophysical objects, from planets, supernovae and stars to binary systems, active galactic nuclei and gamma-ray bursts. Athena will be orbited by a European launcher in 2028.

X-rays, which are absorbed by Earth’s atmosphere and can therefore only be observed from space, tell us a great deal about the hottest regions of the Universe and about black holes and their surroundings. Athena’s observations in the X-ray spectrum will answer two fundamental questions in modern astrophysics: How did matter assemble through cosmic time into the Universe as we see it today? And how do giant black holes form, grow and shape the Universe?

To fulfil its mission, Athena will be equipped with a new-generation X-ray telescope with two instruments at its focus: a high-resolution spectral and angular spectrometer (X-IFU) and a wide-field spectro-imager (WFI). These instruments and data analysis systems on the ground will be developed by two international scientific consortia including Japan and the United States. France is leading the X-IFU consortium, with CNES as prime contractor for the instrument and the IRAP astrophysics and planetology research institute in Toulouse as science lead. French research laboratories involved include CEA-SBT and CEA-SAP, the French atomic energy and alternative energies commission’s low temperatures and astrophysics laboratories, and the APC astro-particles and cosmology laboratory.