The future Space Observatory X of the European Space Agency will be launched in the early 2030s. It will ship the X-ray Integral Field Unit, a revolutionary instrument that required a feasibility study to ensure that it is able to achieve. This study concluded positively paving the way for an instrument that promises major breakthroughs in the field of high energy astrophysics.
Today, scientific questions and technological progress are triggering new space projects to answer the questions generated by the data of the instruments that precede these future projects. An endless cycle that pushes scientists and engineers to create highly innovative instruments, some of which require significant technological leaps.
Athena (Advanced Telescope for High Energy Astrophysics), the future space observatory in European Space Agency is no exception to this rule. The main objective of this observatory is to answer the big questions raised by the scientific theme of the Hot and Dynamic Universe. Namely, how “the material usually comes together to form the structures we see today on a large scale and how black holes are born, evolve and shape the universe as we observe it,” says Stephen Pointecouteau researcher CNRS at the Institute for Astrophysical Research and planetology (Irap) and deputy head of the scientific council of Athena’s X-IFU instrument.
A feasibility study to ensure that it can be designed
For this, it will be equipped with two main instruments including the X-ray Integral Field Unit: a high spectral imager spectral, much more powerful than its predecessors and promises major advances in the field of high energy astrophysics. To give you an idea of the performance jump, X-IFU will have a spectral resolution of 2.5 eV over its entire field of view of 5 arc-minutes, 50 to 60 times better than the performances.
X-IFU is considered the most ambitious instrument ever considered for a space mission. As another example, the collector area of photons will be 45 times greater than that of the XRISM space observatory of Jaxa (Japan), which should fly before us (2021). As for the spectral resolution, it will be twice as good as that of the Japanese and the size of the pixels will be twenty times smaller, which will give X-IFU images of much better quality. “The X-IFU is considered the most ambitious instrument ever considered for a space mission,” says Didier Barret, CNRS researcher at Irap and scientific leader of the X-IFU consortium.
The matrix of detectors (microcalorimeters), the reading electronics and the cryogenic chain (the detectors will be cooled to a temperature close to absolute zero) are the most innovative technologies. To ensure that the concept of the instrument, defined by the scientific requirements, will achieve performance in accordance with the specifications emanating from the scientific team, a 4-month feasibility study was required.
The conclusions of this study were presented this Tuesday, May 21st. The European Space Agency and the National Center for Space Studies have confirmed the feasibility of this instrument. It is now entering its preliminary definition phase which will last about 3 years. If the schedule is respected, the construction of X-IFU should begin between 2024 and 2028.
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