Athena X-IFU: a revolutionary instrument for understanding the Universe

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A new step has just been successfully taken by the scientists in charge of the realization of the X-IFU spectrometer, the flagship instrument of the future X-rays space telescope : Athena. After more than 4 years of studies, following a rigorous evaluation, the European Space Agency (ESA) and the National Centre for Space Studies (CNES) have just confirmed the feasibility of this instrument. Under the scientific responsibility of a CNRS researcher from the Institut de recherche en astrophysique et planétologie (CNRS/CNES/Université Toulouse 3 – Paul Sabatier) and the technical responsibility of CNES, the international consortium of thirteen countries will start developing this unique instrument. Dedicated to the study of the hot and energetic Universe, that of galaxy clusters, black holes and all violent phenomena such as star explosions, X-IFU promises to revolutionize our knowledge of the Universe.

Supermassive black hole © IRAP-OMP (CNRS/UT3 Paul Sabatier/CNES).

Powerful sources of X-rays, extreme phenomena such as black holes, galaxy clusters and star explosions, are true archives that inform us about the major stages of the Universe’s formation and evolution.

Located at the focus of the ESA’s Athena Space Telescope (Advanced Telescope for High ENergy Astrophysics), the X-IFU (X-ray Integral Field Unit) spectrometer will make it possible to observe these phenomena of the warm and energetic Universe, in the field of X-rays: an observation window accessible only from space. X-IFU will feature innovative technologies that provide it with exceptional performance that will allow it to measure X-ray energy with an unprecedented level of accuracy and determine the conditions under which they are emitted. Scientists can then explore galaxy clusters by determining the temperature, velocity, chemical composition of the gas, or follow the matter absorbed by the gigantic black holes located at the heart of the most massive galaxies.
As true centrepiece of the Athena space telescope, X-IFU promises major advances in high-energy astrophysics.

The X-IFU consortium brings together more than 220 engineers and researchers from 50 laboratories in 13 countries on 3 continents, working on the instrument’s 20 or so subsystems. France assumes the scientific responsibility for the X-IFU Consortium through Didier Barret, CNRS research director at IRAP. The CNES is responsible for project management and steering under the responsibility of Vincent Albouys, the project manager for the development phase.
The Athena mission is the second class L (Large) mission selected by ESA in June 2014 as part of its Cosmic Vision scientific program. The Athena Space Telescope will be launched in the early 2030s and will succeed the two space-based X-ray observatories currently in operation: XMM-Newton (ESA) and Chandra (NASA).

Further Resource

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